In some recent guitar classes I gave in Australian universities I found myself talking about phrase structure quite a lot.  Phrasing in music is incredibly important, but it is also important to recognize the smaller sections of a phrase. These smaller sections will help you understand how to play a phrase, it will aid in understanding the composition and in the process of memorization. All in all, phrase structure is a very useful piece of information.

Don’t miss the quiz at the bottom…

Sentence structure in language

Just as in written language, there are structures that appear over and over again. So much so that you could often predict the ending or at the very least know how to speak it out loud with the correct inflection and pauses.

Some examples of predicable phrases from a speech might be:

  • Good evening ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to be here this evening.
  • I would like to thank my friends and my family, for all the support they have given over the past year.
  • Thank you for your time and attention, I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.

I think we could safely say that these phrases are fairly predictable, and even though you might not know what exact words are going to be used, the role these sentences play and their meaning are very familiar. Let’s parse these sentences to see what they are made of.

These three sentences are all quite balanced in that they have a comma breaking up the sentence at the mid point. Before the comma, there are two items addressed. In the first sentence it is the ladies and gentlemen, in the second it is friends and family, and the third has time and attention. Following the comma we have a sentence section that is equally as long as the first and it contains different material.

So, if we were to break it down into two sections, we could call the material before the comma “a” and the material after the comma “b”.

  • “a” Good evening ladies and gentlemen,
  • “b” it is my pleasure to be here this evening.

Let’s go ahead and divide the “a” section again because there are two subjects.

  • “a1” Good evening ladies
  • “a2” (Good evening) gentlemen

So, we end up with : a1 + a2 + b

Have a look through the other two sentences and parse them in the same way.

Sentence structure in music

So what would be the equivalent in music? Well, I am glad you asked. In common practice music we find sentence structure throughout the repertoire. The most common style that promotes this structure is the classical style, but it can be found in all other periods including the modern day. The example we will look at is from the very famous Minuet in G by Christopher Petzold (formerly attributed to J.S. Bach)

CGC L217 Sentence Structure

In the first two measures we are presented with the first idea. This essentially consists of some leaps in the melody and a short scale fragment in eighth notes. This idea is then repeated, but not exactly. The pitches have been transposed up, and the bass line is slightly varied. So, we can say the first two ideas are very closely related but there is some variation.

Therefore the first two measures can be identified as “a1” and measures 3 – 4 as “a2”. The phrase then concludes with a new idea that is four measures long. This is going to be labeled “b”. The general direction of the “a” section is rising in pitch and the “b” section is descending in pitch. In this way they compliment each other and create a nicely balanced phrase in sentence structure. The phrase is also balanced by the number of measures.

  • “a1” = 2 measures
  • “a2” = 2 measures
  • “b” = 4 measures

2+2+4 = 8

And there you have it, the ever popular 8 measure phrase. Once you start identifying these sentence structures in music you will find them popping up just about everywhere. It will really change how you listen to music, and it can greatly aid in structured practice.

Pop quiz, hostshot…

See how many examples of sentence structure you can find in this selection of excerpts. The excerpts are taken from my debut recording Departure (2010). Bonus points if you can name the pieces. Write your answers in the comments below!