Good music, and great music too, has a certain quality that Leonard Bernstein described as inevitability. He was describing that quality of music that leaves the listener with the sense that what he or she just heard was the only possible group of notes that the composer could have written; that any other melodic turn would have sounded wrong, or at least not as good. Music that really engages us leads us on; it never really comes to a satisfying end until the end. It doesn’t leave us with fits and starts or one final sounding moment after another. Music does this when it is composed or improvised with effective use of antecedent phrases paired with consequent ones.
What do I mean by antecedent and consequent phrases? Antecedent phrases are inconclusive. At the end of an antecedent phrase, the music sounds interrupted and never finished; it leaves us unsatisfied demanding more. It leaves us hanging. A good example of this is the beginning of Symphony No 40 in G minor by Mozart. Here’s that first phrase.
Notice how we cannot help but expect the music to continue. It simply cannot end there, leaving us with that unresolved harmony and relatively unstable subdominant tone. The phrase moves from the tonic G minor to the dominant D harmony. This is the antecedent phrase. Unresolved, inconclusive, inviting us to stay for more. The next phrase gives us what we were promised, a complementary phrase that ends conclusively.
This phrase begins on the dominant harmony, D, and ends on the tonic harmony, G minor. Because it ends on the tonic, there is resolution and conclusiveness. This phrase finishes the thought begun in the previous phrase. A phrase that does this is called the consequent phrase. Its name reflects its function–it is a natural consequence of what just preceded it. In Bernstein’s terminology, the consequent phrase is the inevitable conclusion of the antecedent phrase. The two phrases, antecedent and consequent, are drawn together in our perception of them because of their identical rhythms. We can’t help but place them together in our imaginations as we hear them because of this similarity. And it is also because of how they are so similar that we notice how they are different. It is those differences that make one an antecedent phrase, and the other a consequent phrase.
We don’t have to look long to find dozens even hundreds of examples. Music is fun of these phrase pairs. They occur in popular music, jazz, rock, pop–virtually every musical genre in which melody plays a prominent role. Certainly classical music is one such genre, and the one I will stick to here. Another popular example from classical music is the well-known theme found in the final movement of Symphony No. 1 by Brahms. Once again, the antecedent phrase begins on the tonic, which is C major, and ends on the dominant.
This time, the consequent phrase not only has the same rhythm as its antecedent cousin, it also has the same pitches. Only the last pitch is different, and this is the only difference between the two phrases. It manages to end on the tonic, bringing closure to the antecedent-consequent pair.
When the antecedent and consequent phrases begin the same, as they do here, the consequent phrase is called parallel consequent. The term parallel is used in music analysis for a phrase that is recognized as being similar and derived from another phrase. Parallel consequent phrases are easy for students to compose, because they only have to change the cadential pattern at the end of the consequent phrase. It is important, though for the antecedent to move from tonic to dominant, and the consequent to move from dominant to tonic.
Listen to the first movement of Mozart’s fortieth symphony, and the last movement of Brahms’ first symphony. As you do, identify the antecedent and consequent phrases. You may also notice that these pairs themselves become antecedent groups for another pair. Music often is built outwards in this way, so that two phrases become one larger phrase, becomes a theme, becomes a theme group, becomes a section, becomes a movement, etc.
The theme discussed from Brahms’ first symphony can be heard at 4:25 in the video. The theme from Mozart’s fortieth symphony occurs at the beginning of that video. I hope you enjoy this wonderful music.