Teaching Musical Phrases

Version 2From a perceptual perspective, phrase may be the most important musical element that a music educator teaches. While pitch and rhythm are perhaps the most foundational, and while there can be no phrases without pitch and rhythm, people perceive and understand music aurally in groups of sounds, not from individual notes. Even in instances where a single note is sustained, it is the expectation set up by the delay of another note that gives that single note its meaning and expressiveness. Leonard Bernstein, in his Young People’s Concert titled “What Does Music Mean?” said, “all music is a combination of sounds… put together according to a plan. [The composer’s ] plan is to put the sounds together with rhythms and different instruments or voices or whatever in such a way that what finally comes out is exciting, or fun, or touching, or interesting, or all of those together.” Music is a combination of sounds, not a series of individual, unrelated sounds. To illustrate this, compare the opening measure of Liszt’s B minor piano sonata to the opening measure of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Liszt’s sonata begins with a single note–the tonic B, followed by silence. It’s a haunting beginning, because we expect a motif or at least one or two notes to immediately follow and give us a start at a melody. But no, all we get is one note, silence, and then the same one note again followed by more silence. While it would be difficult to argue that these two Bs are not music, because they do, after all, begin a piano sonata which is unquestionably music, left with only a single note, we, the listener, are at a loss as to what to do with those two isolated tones. They as yet have no musical meaning, because they have no musical context; no other notes with which we can perceive relationships.

The opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, on the other hand, is packed with musical meaning and is probably the most recognizable symphonic motif ever composed. Here we are given 4 notes. This is not enough to make a phrase, but it is enough to elicit a response from us. We can remember those four notes, and recognize them if we hear them again, and most importantly, we can recognize them in the many transformations of that motif that Beethoven will present to us throughout his symphony. On the other hand, we don’t take notice every time Liszt uses a “b” in his sonata. We do, however, recognize the opening use of the b’s when they return, because by then there is a rhythm and a pulse attached to them, making them a motif of 2 notes instead of an occurrence of 1 note twice.

Comparison to language can be helpful. A single letter, like a single note, rarely has any meaning. Even the letter “a” by itself, though a word, has no meaning, because we don’t know what the object is. It could be a day, or a note, or a symphony, or a stomach ache. If all we have is “a” there really isn’t any understanding of what is being talked or written about. But once that letter “a” is combined with other letters, either as part of a word or followed by a subject, then and only then does the letter “a” have linguistic meaning. But even if we get to the word “ready” which contains an a, or the phrase “a stomach ache,” we still don’t have all the understanding we need, but we do have a phrase. A phrase is a part of a sentence, and it gives us some of the entire thought, but needs another phrase go along with it to complete the thought. After Beethoven gave us those first four notes, he gave us the same motif transposed down the interval of a second. Though this still isn’t a phrase, it does give us more information, though it remains delightfully ambiguous.  It’s more of a teaser. We don’t know yet if we are in C minor or Eb major, but we have come to a pause and wait for more. Over the next four measures,  get a phrase and with it the certainty that we are in C minor.


I teach my students that there is a progression from motif, to phrase, to theme. A phrase must have more than a single musical idea, and must be a uniform length throughout the work or movement, excepting for the occasional elision. At first blush, it appears that Beethoven is writing 2-measure phrases, with each dotted quarter note being the end of a phrase. But after the first 2 measures, the next phrase continues on for 4 measures before there is such a pause, making the length of that phrase unmistakably 4 measures. The symmetry with which classical composers wrote, even an innovative ones like Beethoven,  demands that a one phrase be balanced by a second phrase of the same length. This balanced phrase structure is part of a hierarchy, with phrases nested into themes, nested into theme groups, nested into sections, nested into an entire movement. So an essential characteristic of musical phrases is that within a single work, they are consistently the same length.

This is equally true of popular music, though on a smaller scale. You can walk your students through most any song, beginning with the first note, going forward until a motif is identified, often through rhythmic parallelism, and then expanding outward to a phrase which is easily found at the first comma in the lyrics, and then continuing forward for the same number of measures to the end of subsequent phrases, which will coincide with either a comma, semi colon,  or a period in the lyrics. Stringing several phrases that all end with unresolved dissonance or just avoid the tonic chord has become a popular technique that builds tension, often leading up to a climactic release at the chorus. Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm is a good example of this. I like to use the lyrics to reinforce my point, but to initially present the song by just playing the melody on the piano to show them the purely musical phrase structure. Once they realize that, the lyrics support the musical analysis.  I also use the text to point out the difference between the end of a phrase, which typically ends on the subdominant or dominant chord, and the end of a “sentence” of music, which typically ends on the tonic chord. This affords the opportunity to bring tonality and cadences into the teaching of phrases. The phrase boundary a listener perceives is marked by cadences, as well as a rhythmic organization that supplies either a pause (rest) or a relatively long duration which momentarily suspends the rhythmic motion.

There is also the expressive aspect of phrases. Music is expressive and interesting in large part because it has patterns of tension and relaxation. One phrase will build tension, while another will bring real ease and relaxation. These patterns  are made both within phrases and among phrases. For example, the well-known “Morning Mood” melody found in Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg builds tension within the first phrase, but builds greater tension from the beginning of the first phrase to the end of the second phrase. When these inter-phrase and intra-phrase buildups and releases of tension are tracked by the listener, the music becomes expressive in the way composers intended. The structure of musical phrases makes possible the perception of musical expression, and so the expressive properties of musical phrases must be taught along with the structural ones.  Listen to the music I have discussed here and notice both the structures and expressions of each phrase.


One thought on “Teaching Musical Phrases

  1. Pingback: Teaching Musical Phrases – mr a music place | I Write The Music

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