Teaching Antecedent and Consequent Phrase Structure in Music

2011Symposium_1_2One of the musical structures we must teach our students is that of phrasing, or what Lerdahl & Jackendoff refer to as grouping. Basic to musical phrases is the concept of antecedent and consequent phrases. Antecedent phrases are complete phrases that end on a pitch of relative instability or tension, resulting in the listener expecting continuation, even after the performer takes a brief pause or breath. Consequent phrases are also complete phrases, but they end on a pitch of relative stability or relaxation, resulting in the listener recognizing the conclusion of the musical thought. Themes, sections, movements and works end on consequent phrases. Very often, consequent phrases end on the tonic, and antecedent phrases end on the dominant. Because antecedent or consequent phrases are defined primarily by the harmonic function of the last note, they are most effectively taught by holding rhythm constant while giving students creative license with pitch. The only stipulation is that the consequent phrase must end on the tonic. It is also possible that students can use elaborative notes in the consequent phrase. Take the melody “Mary Had A Little Lamb” as an example.


Structurally, the first line is a reduction of the second. The quarter notes on beats 3 and 4 of the second measure of the second line reduce to one half note in the first line, and the quarter note on beat 3 of the third measure in the second line is an upper neighbor tone that is omitted in the reduction, in which a half note on D occurs. The last measure of the first line could be reduced further to a whole note on G, the dominant. In its reduced form, the second line is identical to the first except for the last note; the antecedent ends on the dominant and the consequent ends on the tonic. Students can be given the first line, with the further reduced last measure, and then asked to write a consequent phrase ending on the tonic pitch. They would be at liberty to write any diatonic pitches, but to maintain the rhythm of the first line exactly. One possible solution is given below.


Prior learning will include voice leading, analysis of stylistic elements, and skill at audiating so that students do not write down random notes, or notes that are stylistically incompatible with the antecedent phrase provided. Doing this activity with antecedent phrases of different styles and genres provides the opportunity for students to learn about and compare each style or genre represented. Assessment would include ending on the tonic, maintaining the same rhythm  preserving the same style, using diatonic pitches, and observing good voice leading. If student work is handwritten, assessment could also include accurate forming of note heads, stems, measures, clef, and time signature, and the correct number of beats in each measure. Students who do the work on music notation software should nevertheless be asked to demonstrate understanding of notation conventions such as correct length and direction of note stems, and of the metrical arrangement of notes within measures. Technology should never allow students to bypass the learning of concepts.

A great deal of learning can result form this one activity. Phrase structure, style, genre, and notation are all closely related issues in music. This activity fosters an efficient use of time because all of these can be addressed at once in a practical, relevant way; students need to know about and apply their knowledge of style, genre and music notation in order to gain a deep understanding of the target concept, that of antecedent and consequent phrases.



Using Core Arts Standards To Teach Students How To Analyze Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2Once a musical work has been selected (see my post for yesterday on selecting repertoire) the next step in the process of preparing it for performance is to analyze. The focus of the analysis should be constrained to what will be useful to the student, and to what interests the student in the work. Students should be aware of all the musical qualities the composer used, that they can be properly interpreted and performed. Included should be use of dynamics, tempo, articulation, phrasing, rhythm, and melodic contour.

I have been writing lately about the methods of Jaques-Dalcroze, and so I shall draw upon his writings again here. Jaques-Dalcroze wrote thirteen rules of nuance and phrasing. In as much as we are considering dynamics, tempo, articulation, phrasing, rhythm, pitch and melodic contour, they will serve our purpose well here, and provide a clear framework for students to follow for their analyses. The students should look for the condition described in each rule, and then apply the method of nuance or phrasing prescribed.

  1. All ascending melodies (with exceptions) must be sung with a crescendo and all descending melodies (with exceptions) must be sung with a diminuendo.
  2. Not all melodies are nuanced with the same intensity. When a passage contains very accented rhythms, the nuances of crescendo and decrescendo should be weaker than if the rhythm were less accented.
  3. If a note in an ascending line is prolonged, it should be part of the overall crescendo.
  4. When a note is repeated several times in a row, it must be accompanied by a crescendo.
  5. When a note is repeated several times in a row, preceding the original melody, the crescendo should be accompanied by a rallentando.
  6. Whenever a rhythmic and melodic group is repeated two times in a row, you must breathe between the two and perform the repetition with a different nuance than the first was performed.
  7. Any melodic reprise which is prepared must be accompanied by a rallentatndo.
  8. When a melody ends by a series of stepwise notes of the same duration, thse last notes should be slightly staccato. If these preceded the return of the melody, they should be accompanied by a rallentando.
  9. Whenever a link (“a link is a series of notes of the same duration”) leads to the reprise of a melody, where the first notes are twice as long, the rallentando of the last notes of the link must be large enough that these notes become twice their original length. Whenever a theme is reprised by a link made up of shorter notes than the theme itself, do not breathe until after the first or second notes of the theme.
  10. Whenever a ascending series of equal-duration notes is encountered amid notes of unequal values, these ascending notes must be strongly accented. Whenever a link leads to the reprise of a powerful theme, sing the link with a crescendo, even if the link is descending! (Exception to first rule of nuance.)
  11. Whenever a link leads to the reprise of a gentle theme, sing the link with a descrescendo, even if the link is ascending! (Exception to first rule of nuance.)
  12. Any series of notes isolated in measures containing silences that end a piece must be interpreted with a rallentando of the silences.
  13. When two notes of the same duration but different scale degrees are tied together, the notes are always performed STRONG-weak, even if the second note falls on a strong (or stronger) beat than the first. (This rule derives from the second rule of phrasing: that the last note of a phrase should be performed more softly.) When the second note falls on a stronger beat (a), it should be performed more softly. When the second note falls on a weaker beat (b), the first note should instead be performed louder with a natural relaxation into the second note.


Jaques-Dalcroze (1906). Les Gammes et Les Tonalites, Le Phrase et Les Nuances, volume 1, translated by Gregory Ristow.



What’s Your Interpretation?

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed creativity in the music classroom. When children perform music, and when I say perform I include practice, rehearsal, and concertizing, they need freedom to explore the interpretive possibilities before them. I think it is an unfortunate result of our pre-service training and perhaps also of our experience playing and singing under some conductors, that we prepare a particular interpretation and then go about training our students to carry out our interpretation. The trouble with that approach is that it relegates all of the creative activity to the conductor, and reduces what the students are doing to little more than following a set of how-to directions. I’m convinced that we take a lot of the fun out of music making, and indeed miss the point of including students in music-making activities, if we dictate a one and only interpretation.

Leading student musicians should be a lot like being a good listener in a conversation. It’s not good to do all the talking, or to not really listen to what the other person is saying because we’re eager to refute what they haven’t even finished saying. When our students are playing or singing music, we must really listen. The object of our listening shouldn’t be to catch all of the mistakes and tell them how to do it right, it should be to catch what they are trying to do with the music and help them to do it better. If I am leading an ensemble, and they are struggling, I may ask “am I going too fast?” If they say yes, it means I’m making it too difficult for them. If they say no, we want to go faster, then the rhythms may not be falling into a groove for them at the tempo I’m going, so it’s worth trying a faster one.
At other times, it’s worth just giving them choices. For example, “we could diminuendo to the piano and then crescendo after the piano, or we could sing forte up to the piano, and then suddenly get soft. Let’s try it both ways, and see which way we like better.” The students can try it both ways, discuss the differences, and then agree on one or the other.

It is also a good idea to share with your students how you arrive at an interpretation. I concentrate on three aspects of the music. First, I like to consider the meter, and how the composer has used the chosen meter to create the different levels of beat. I want to discover how the music feels in my body, how it urges me to move. My conducting should reflect those urges so that it will serve as a model for my students, helping them discover how the meter feels in their bodies. Second, I look at how the phrasing is structured. I discover the length of phrases, and how they are marked off in the music. For example, do phrases tend to end on relatively long notes? Do phrases end with a change in articulation? Do several phrases have parallel characteristics that show me the should all be described the same way? Third, I look for the most important note in each phrase. This note will be the destination of the phrase, and will be the one I want to build up to and release from. Each phrase has one most important note. Parallel phrases will have the same most-important note, so again it is important to recognize similar phrases so I can interpret them in similar ways.
When my students are sensitive to these three aspects of music–meter, phrasing, and most-important notes within each phrase, they are equipped to interpret the music, or at least contribute to the interpretation. In doing this, they are applying analysis techniques to creative decision making. As Richard Rodgers once wrote, “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” To make an interpretation, there must be something to interpret. Analysis shows us what is there, and informs creative decisions. Student-centered interpretation is another dimension of creativity in the music classroom.

What is Musicianship?

2011Symposium_1_2Musicianship is one of those words that is used frequently but thought about rarely. As music teachers, we want our students to acquire musicianship, but we don’t necessarily spend much time specifically teaching it. Much of the time we are teaching skills, and then assuming musicianship will automatically follow. But it is often the case in education that the transfers of knowledge we think students will make on their own go unnoticed. Often, it is necessary for us to guide students through the transfer of knowledge from one application to another, or from one level of proficiency to the next. So it is with transferring skills to the practice of musicianship.

When I was an undergraduate at a major music conservatory, there was one weekly class I had to attend every semester for all four years. The name of the class was “musicianship.” Students signed up to play for a master class taught by a distinguished professor with the whole school watching. Several students would perform each week, and through it all we saw and heard how to shape musical phrases into performances that were pleasing, expressive and even passionate. What we did not learn in that class were fingerings, bowings, and what notes to play. That was not part of learning musicianship. Learning to play musically was the purpose of the class called “musicianship.”.

Implicit in this view is that musicianship is the highest level of musical thinking and performing—it is what elite players domusic_words_large to cause their performances to be outstanding above the rest. Musicianship cannot be thought of as only what a musician does, because some of what a musician does cannot be considered practicing musicianship. Knowing how to play, and practicing fingerings, notes, and other things must precede practicing musicianship, but technical matters of playing an instrument do not come up to the bar of what musicianship is. Knowing what to play is not included in musicianship, but knowing how to play and playing that way, does demonstrate musicianship.

So far I have defined musicianship in the realm of musical performance only, but musicianship can also be demonstrated by any act of music making. These include composing, improvising, and listening. In our Western art music tradition, composers create the master plan that the performers will follow during rehearsals and concerts. Because the composer imagines what the work will sound like when performed, all of the benefits of musicianship must come into play during the composing process. Phrasings and expressive details must be planned and executed in the writing of the music, and so requires musicianship. The composer builds a musical structure that the performers will animate with physical sound. Listeners then receive that sound, and must apprehend the structure and all that the composer and performers have expressed, and come to a hearing of the piece that includes the composer’s intent, the performers’ intent, and through the listeners’ own experience and musicianship, understandings of both. Listeners’ musicianship is apparent from the way they recognize musical patterns, respond emotionally to music, and remember motifs, themes, phrases and melodies. Musicianship is practiced wherever knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity, to borrow from the Random House Dictionary, are brought to bear on an act of music making.

When we are teaching students solfege, ear training, instrumental technique, sight-singing or any other musical skill, we are not teaching them musicianship, but instead preparing them to make music with musicianship. There is nothing particularly musical in an artistic sense of the singing that is done in an ear training class, or the music that is played in an early level instrument lesson. Though music is being made, it is not necessarily musical. This is because musicianship has not yet been applied to the skill of producing pitches and rhythms. Musicianship is a synthesis of music skills, accomplished in a single act of music making. We teach someone musicianship when we teach them to bring all the necessary music skills together into a performance of artistic excellence.