Learn Keyboard NJ: Phrasing

Phrasing is the breath and life of music. Without interpretive phrasing, music is as meaningless as unpunctuated speech.

A phrase is a natural musical division comparable to a sentence of speech. So, phrasing is concerned with showing these divisions, both short and long and their relationship with another. Articulation, on the other hand, is concerned with whether a note is joined to its neighbor or neighbors, or is somewhat detached.

Musical Phrasing

Musical phrases, like spoken sentences, are defined by being separated from one another by 'breaths' of varying length, something like the effect of commas, semi-colons, and full-stops in the sentences of speech. These tiny silences hardly disturb the time-scheme of the music by shortening the last note of a phrase. But, when a more marked break is needed, it might also be sometimes necessary, especially in romantic music (sometimes with the sustaining pedal) to lengthen the bar slightly, or even to make a tiny rit. Such breaks are infinitesimal, and much of the art of phrasing lies in the subtlety with which they differ and are executed.

Use this method to help discover and master the phrasing of any classical composition:

  • To discover the phrasing of an unfamiliar work, begin by sight reading through the composition as best you can.

  • Then turn back to the beginning and play as far as the first obvious halting place, such as a specially strong cadence, a cadence preceding a new musical idea, or a double bar.

  • Having established this initial paragraph, proceed to break it down into its sections and phrases, which you'll find are generally rounded off by cadences of varying strength.

  • Finally, with these musical divisions clearly in your mind, or marked in pencil on the music score, ask yourself two questions: (a) which are the more important and which are the less important breaks between phrases, and (b) where is the climax of the whole paragraph? That is to say, where is the point towards which the tension mounts and away from it slackens.

  • Having analyzed the first paragraph in this way, continue to the second and treat it similarly. And so on with the rest of the composition, always relating each new paragraph to those that have gone before, so that the whole is kept in perspective and the main climax of the composition is clearly differentiated from the less important climaxes.

Think of the most important break as the equivalent of a full-stop, or a period that comes at the end of a sentence. A less important break is something like a semi-colon, and a still less important one resembles a comma, or a brief breath. Phrase analysis of this kind not only shows the performer where the music "breathes," it also provides him with a key to one of the most important forms of contrast available to the composer: the use of varying phrase-lengths.

Once the length of a phrase has been found, the next thing to decide is how it should be articulated; i.e. which of its notes should be separated (and how much) and which notes should be joined to its neighbor(s). Notes, however, must be allowed time to breathe and establish their individuality and never slurred into anonymous groups.

Maybe the best approach in finding the articulation of a phrase is to sing, hum, or whistle it. Such ear training technique shows the melodic structure, the climax of the phrase, the notes that form indivisible musical groups, and the places where natural breaks occur. The basic harmony and progression underlying the melody should be supported by the articulation.