You might already be familiar with the word “phrasing” when it comes to language. But, when it comes to music, phrasing means something a little different.
Musical phrasing is how a musician shapes and colours the sequence of notes they play in a passage. They do this to help relay an impression or emotion, and can achieve a stylistic difference from what’s found on the sheet music by changing up the tempo, tone, articulation dynamics, or other characteristics.
As you’ve probably guessed, this week we’re tackling musical phrasing!
For a vocalist, phrasing can be achieved through pauses, stops, and breaths. It can refer to how you separate words – or string them together – to give your music style or meaning. It’s your style of phrasing that often sets you apart from other singers.
Instrumentalists can also perform using musical phrasing. A guitar player, for example, might present their riffs, licks, and notes a little differently from others. The way a performer creates these notes with the use of dynamics and emotions help set them apart.
What is a Musical Phrase?
While it has other meanings in different areas, when it comes to music, a phrase refers to a short section of a musical composition into which the vocal or instrumental part seems to fit naturally. Usually, phrases tend to be four measures long, but they can be either longer or shorter.
Phrases are often completed in a single breath, but sometimes they may be indicated by sub-divisions. You will often find phrase-marks that come in the form of slurs. These slurs help to guide you through the phrasing for that section in the performance.
Of course, phrasing tends to be a little more instinctive. That’s what makes different artists’ performances of essentially the same song sound so vastly different.
Techniques for Musical Phrasing
There are many kinds of techniques for musical phrasing, and as a musician, you’ll be able to make use of these techniques to enhance how you phrase music. Give these a try:
There are a few similarities between storytelling and musical phrasing. Some storytellers barely pause for breath, rushing through to the end. Yet, others are more calculating with their narratives. Musical phrasing can work in a similar fashion, involving the dynamics of slowing down when stressing something important or speeding up to glide over unimportant details.
It’s all about emphasis, and musical phrasing uses is in the same way a storyteller does. You decide when to breathe or pause as you sing. You choose how fast or slow you will play a section. By making those choices you are communicating your own emotions and meaning to your listeners.
Have a Conversation with the Audience
Another technique for musical phrasing is to think of your singing or playing as a literal conversation with your audience. When you have a conversation, you emphasis some words, or alter your intonation – you change your voice so you don’t sound like a monotone robot. You change things up to keep your audience’s attention and interest.
As a performer, you do something similar. You wouldn’t sing or play in a dull monotone. You don’t create notes without giving them shape. You give the music added shape and meaning by changing up the timing and varying your pitches.
All this adds a bit of personality to whatever you’re playing. By bending each piece to your own distinctive way of phrasing, you add your own touch to it.
Add in Some Narration
We’ve already briefly touched on how storytelling and musical phrasing relate, but it goes a little deeper than what we’ve covered so far. Not only does emphasis and intonation play a huge role in both, so too does narration.
When you read a story you usually follow the punctuation, right? You pause when there is a comma and stop after periods at the end of sentences. To tell a story well, you need to know the story and its punctuation well, as well as how you’re going to narrate each sentence. The best storytellers know the flow of their story before they even start to speak.
In the same way, musical phrasing can make any musical section more exciting, allowing you to narrate the song’s meaning through dynamics, tempo variations, articulation, and vibrato. But like the best storytellers, you can’t phrase a section well unless you know the song well!
Tempo, as we discussed before, is the pace of a song, and plays an important role in how that song sounds when it’s performed. One way to enhance your musical phrasing is to vary the tempo. You can do this by using rubatos – to temporarily ignore the song’s tempo to allow for a quickening or slackening – or accelerandos – where the sections gradually increases in tempo. Using both can enhance the intensity of your performance.
Your audience will definitely pick up on the changes in pace. Tempo changes draw and engage the attention of listeners very effectively.
Add Conflict and Tension
One of the most exciting ways to engage your audience is to create tension with your musical phrasing. This can be done by adding in small timing changes, as well as unexpected pauses. Without this tension, listeners can become bores, especially if you’re performing a piece they’ve heard a hundred times, the same way they have always heard it.
Adding tension to your phrasing is like mentally teasing your audience by doing something they weren’t expecting.
Musical phrasing is an extremely subjective aspect of music, but one that can set you apart from other performers when done well. Think of it as a sort of personal style, or way of shaping the notes in a song to say what you want them to say. And as such, it’s a very personal and unique thing. The way you choose to order and shape your notes may be the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd.
Looking to stand out from the crowd with a little help from the professionals? The Music Studio offers all sorts of classes and lessons for all ages and skill levels! It’s never too late to start making music!