Phrase (music)

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Period built of two five bar phrases in Haydn's Feldpartita. Play (help*info) Haydn - Feldpartita period.png
Period built of two five bar phrases in Haydn's Feldpartita. Loudspeaker.svg Play  
Diagram of a period consisting of two phrases Period phrase-commonalities.png
Diagram of a period consisting of two phrases

In music theory, a phrase (Greek : φράση) is a unit of musical meter that has a complete musical sense of its own, [5] built from figures, motifs, and cells, and combining to form melodies, periods and larger sections. [6]


A phrase is a substantial musical thought, which ends with a musical punctuation called a cadence. Phrases are created in music through an interaction of melody, harmony, and rhythm. [7]

Terms such as sentence and verse have been adopted into the vocabulary of music from linguistic syntax. [8] Though the analogy between the musical and the linguistic phrase is often made, still the term "is one of the most ambiguous in music....there is no consistency in applying these terms nor can there be...only with melodies of a very simple type, especially those of some dances, can the terms be used with some consistency." [9]

John D. White defines a phrase as, "the smallest musical unit that conveys a more or less complete musical thought. Phrases vary in length and are terminated at a point of full or partial repose, which is called a cadence." [10] Edward Cone analyses the "typical musical phrase" as consisting of an "initial downbeat, a period of motion, and a point of arrival marked by a cadential downbeat". [11] Charles Burkhart defines a phrase as "Any group of measures (including a group of one, or possibly even a fraction of one) that has some degree of structural completeness. What counts is the sense of completeness we hear in the pitches not the notation on the page. To be complete such a group must have an ending of some kind … . Phrases are delineated by the tonal functions of pitch. They are not created by slur or by legato performance … . A phrase is not pitches only but also has a rhythmic dimension, and further, each phrase in a work contributes to that work's large rhythmic organization." [12] song

Duration or form

In common practice phrases are often four bars or measures long [13] culminating in a more or less definite cadence. [14] A phrase will end with a weaker or stronger cadence, depending on whether it is an antecedent phrase or a consequent phrase, the first or second half of a period.

However, the absolute span of the phrase (the term in today's use is coined by the German theorist Hugo Riemann [15] ) is as contestable as its pendant in language, where there can be even one-word-phrases (like "Stop!" or "Hi!"). Thus no strict line can be drawn between the terms of the 'phrase', the 'motiv' or even the separate tone (as a one-tone-, one-chord- or one-noise-expression).

Thus, in views of the Gestalt theory the term of the phrase is rather enveloping any musical expression which is perceived as a consistent gestalt separate from others, however few or many beats, i. e. distinct musical events like tones, chords or noises, it may contain.

Phrase-group of three four bar phrases in Mozart's Piano Sonata in F, K. 332, first movement. Play (help*info) Mozart - Piano Sonata in F, K. 332, first movement phrase group.png
Phrase-group of three four bar phrases in Mozart's Piano Sonata in F, K. 332, first movement. Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A phrase-group is, "a group of three or more phrases linked together without the two-part feeling of a period," or, "a pair of consecutive phrases in which the first is a repetition of the second or in which, for whatever reason, the antecedent-consequent relationship is absent." [17]

Phrase rhythm is the rhythmic aspect of phrase construction and the relationships between phrases, and "is not at all a cut-and-dried affair, but the very lifeblood of music and capable of infinite variety. Discovering a work's phrase rhythm is a gateway to its understanding and to effective performance." The term was popularized by William Rothstein's Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music. [18] [ non-primary source needed ] Techniques include overlap, lead-in, extension, expansion, reinterpretation and elision.

Phrase segments in the opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 Play (help*info) Phrase segments in Beethoven Opus 68 I.png
Phrase segments in the opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 Loudspeaker.svg Play  

A phrase member is one of the parts in a phrase separated into two by a pause or long note value, the second of which may repeat, sequence, or contrast with the first. [20] A phrase segment, "is a distinct portion of the phrase, but it is not a phrase either because it is not terminated by a cadence or because it seems too short to be relatively independent." [19]

See also


  1. White (1976), p. 44.
  2. Benjamin, Thomas; Horvit, Michael; and Nelson, Robert (2003). Techniques and Materials of Music, p. 252. 7th edition. Thomson Schirmer. ISBN   0495500542.
  3. Cooper, Paul (1973). Perspectives in Music Theory, p. 48. Dodd, Mead, and Co. ISBN   0396067522.
  4. Kostka, Stefan and Payne, Dorothy (1995). Tonal Harmony, p. 162. Third edition. McGraw-Hill. ISBN   0073000566.
  5. Falk (1958), p. 11, Larousse cited in Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN   0-691-02714-5.
  6. 1980 New Grove cited in Nattiez 1990.
  7. Benward, Bruce & Saker, Marilyn (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.89. Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill. ISBN   978-0-07-294262-0.
  8. 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle cited in Nattiez 1990.
  9. Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN   0-19-517010-5.
  10. White (1976), p. 34. Italics original.
  11. Winold, Allen (1975). "Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Music", Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Wittlich, Gary (ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN   0-13-049346-5.
  12. Burkhart, Charles. "The Phrase Rhythm of Chopin's A-flat Major Mazurka, Op. 59, No. 2" cited in Stein 2005.
  13. Larousse, Davie 1966, 19 cited in Nattiez 1990.
  14. Larousse cited in Nattiez 1990.
  15. System der musikalischen Rhythmik und Metrik (Leipzig, 1903)
  16. White, John D. (1976). The Analysis of Music, pp. 43–44. ISBN   0-13-033233-X.
  17. White (1976), p. 46.
  18. Rothstein, William (1990). Phase Rhythm in Tonal Music. New York: Schirmer. ISBN   978-0-02-872191-0.
  19. 1 2 Kostka and Payne (1995), p.158.
  20. Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p. 113. Seventh Edition. ISBN   978-0-07-294262-0.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Syncopation is a musical term meaning a variety of rhythms played together to make a piece of music, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat. More simply, syncopation is "a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm": a "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur". It is the correlation of at least two sets of time intervals.

Music theory Considers the practices and possibilities of music

Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. The Oxford Companion to Music describes three interrelated uses of the term "music theory". The first is the "rudiments", that are needed to understand music notation ; the second is learning scholars' views on music from antiquity to the present; the third a sub-topic of musicology that "seeks to define processes and general principles in music". The musicological approach to theory differs from music analysis "in that it takes as its starting-point not the individual work or performance but the fundamental materials from which it is built."

Metre (music) Aspect of music

In music, metre or meter refers to the regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats. Unlike rhythm, metric onsets are not necessarily sounded, but are nevertheless implied by the performer and expected by the listener.

In music, duration is an amount of time or how long or short a note, phrase, section, or composition lasts. "Duration is the length of time a pitch, or tone, is sounded." A note may last less than a second, while a symphony may last more than an hour. One of the fundamental features of rhythm, or encompassing rhythm, duration is also central to meter and musical form. Release plays an important part in determining the timbre of a musical instrument and is affected by articulation.

In music, the subdominant is the fourth tonal degree of the diatonic scale. It is so called because it is the same distance below the tonic as the dominant is above the tonic – in other words, the tonic is the dominant of the subdominant. It also happens to be the note one step below the dominant. In the movable do solfège system, the subdominant note is sung as fa.

In poetic and musical meter, and by analogy in publishing, an anacrusis is a brief introduction. Greek: ἀνάκρουσις.

A secondary chord is an analytical label for a specific harmonic device that is prevalent in the tonal idiom of Western music beginning in the common practice period: the use of diatonic functions for tonicization.

In music, texture is how the tempo, melodic, and harmonic materials are combined in a musical composition, determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece. The texture is often described in regard to the density, or thickness, and range, or width, between lowest and highest pitches, in relative terms as well as more specifically distinguished according to the number of voices, or parts, and the relationship between these voices. For example, a thick texture contains many 'layers' of instruments. One of these layers could be a string section or another brass. The thickness also is changed by the amount and the richness of the instruments playing the piece. The thickness varies from light to thick. A piece's texture may be changed by the number and character of parts playing at once, the timbre of the instruments or voices playing these parts and the harmony, tempo, and rhythms used.. The types categorized by number and relationship of parts are analyzed and determined through the labeling of primary textural elements: primary melody (PM), secondary melody (SM), parallel supporting melody (PSM), static support (SS), harmonic support (HS), rhythmic support (RS), and harmonic and rhythmic support (HRS).

In Western musical theory, a cadence is "a melodic or harmonic configuration that creates a sense of resolution [finality or pause]". A harmonic cadence is a progression of two chords that concludes a phrase, section, or piece of music. A rhythmic cadence is a characteristic rhythmic pattern that indicates the end of a phrase.

In music, the submediant is the sixth degree of the diatonic scale, the lower mediant—halfway between the tonic and the subdominant. In the movable do solfège system, the submediant note is sung as la in major, as fa in minor. It is occasionally called superdominant, as the degree above the dominant. This is its normal name (sus-dominante) in French.

In music, the subtonic is the flattened seventh scale degree of the diatonic scale, that is, the lowered or minor seventh degree of the scale, a whole step below the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the subtonic note is sung as te. It appears in the natural minor and descending melodic minor scales but not in the major scale. In major keys, the subtonic sometimes appears in borrowed chords.

Motif (music)

In music, a motif(pronunciation)  IPA: (/moʊˈtiːf/) is a short musical phrase, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "The motive is the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity".

A movement is a self-contained part of a musical composition or musical form. While individual or selected movements from a composition are sometimes performed separately, a performance of the complete work requires all the movements to be performed in succession. A movement is a section, "a major structural unit perceived as the result of the coincidence of relatively large numbers of structural phenomena".

A unit of a larger work that may stand by itself as a complete composition. Such divisions are usually self-contained. Most often the sequence of movements is arranged fast-slow-fast or in some other order that provides contrast.

While the ultimate harmonic goal of a tonal composition is the final tonic triad, there will also be many interior harmonic goals found within the piece, some of them tonic triads and some of them not. ...We use the term cadence to mean a harmonic goal, specifically the chords used at the goal.

Subject (music)

In music, a subject is the material, usually a recognizable melody, upon which part or all of a composition is based. In forms other than the fugue, this may be known as the theme.

Period (music)

In music, the term period refers to certain types of recurrence in small-scale formal structure. In twentieth-century music scholarship, the term is usually used as defined by the Oxford Companion to Music: "a period consists of two phrases, antecedent and consequent, each of which begins with the same basic motif." Earlier usage varied somewhat, but usually referred to similar notions of symmetry, recurrence, and closure. The concept of a musical period originates in comparisons between music structure and rhetoric at least as early as the 16th century.

Cell (music)

The 1957 Encyclopédie Larousse defines a cell in music as a "small rhythmic and melodic design that can be isolated, or can make up one part of a thematic context". The cell may be distinguished from the figure or motif: the 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle defines a cell as "the smallest indivisible unit", unlike the motif, which may be divisible into more than one cell. "A cell can be developed, independent of its context, as a melodic fragment, it can be used as a developmental motif. It can be the source for the whole structure of the work; in that case it is called a generative cell."

Repetition is important in music, where sounds or sequences are often repeated. It may be called restatement, such as the restatement of a theme. While it plays a role in all music, with noise and musical tones lying along a spectrum from irregular to periodic sounds,(Moravcsik, 114)(Rajagopal, ) it is especially prominent in specific styles.

In music, the dominant is the fifth scale degree of the diatonic scale. It is called the dominant because it is next in importance to the first scale degree, the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the dominant note is sung as "So(l)".

Musical phrasing

Musical phrasing is the way a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music to allow expression, much like when speaking English a phrase may be written identically but may be spoken differently, and is named for the interpretation of small units of time known as phrases. A musician accomplishes this by interpreting the music—from memory or sheet music—by altering tone, tempo, dynamics, articulation, inflection, and other characteristics. Phrasing can emphasise a concept in the music or a message in the lyrics, or it can digress from the composer's intention, aspects of which are commonly indicated in musical notation called phrase marks or phrase markings. For example, accelerating the tempo or prolonging a note may add tension.

A phrase is a substantial musical thought, which ends with a musical punctuation called a cadence. Phrases are created in music through an interaction of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Charles Burkhart is an American musicologist, theorist, composer, and pianist. He holds the title of Professor Emeritus in the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is known especially as a scholar in Schenkerian analysis and as a successful lecturer and master class presenter.