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All About Musical Phrasing

(And how it applies to songwriters)

· Songwriting

When most people think of "phrasing," they think of the way you say a sentence or a phrase. After all, the word is "phrase-ing," right?

Creating melodies that flow well with your lyrics is one aspect of phrasing.

But musical phrasing is so much more than just pronouncing a phrase. It comes down to the notes your singing, the volume at which your singing them, the rhythm that accompanies them, and the way you emphasize the words.

Mastering musical phrasing will help both your vocal interpretation of songs and your songwriting. It's the difference between a seemingly flat, emotionless performance and a heartfelt, passionate performance.

In this post, I'm going to steal some concepts from classical music that translate really well to pop music genres.

The classical definition of musical phrasing

Classical musicians use the idea of musical phrasing even in music that doesn't have lyrics. If you think of music as a language (which you should!), a phrase is a short musical idea, usually an even number of measures (like 4 or 8)

Classical theorists even define these phrases as "questions" (antecedent phrase) and "answers" (consequent phrase). A "question" phrase will end on a more tense of unsatisfying note and an "answer" phrase will have a more final sounding ending.

Now this is great and all, but how does it apply to phrasing?

There's an unwritten rule in how you interpret phrases. And it makes all the difference in how you play classical melodies.

Many phrases start small, grows to a climax, and ends small. Think of each phrase as an arch.

Now the crazy thing is, this idea isn't usually notated in classical music. Every 4 bars isn't marked with a crescendo (getting louder) and decrescendo (getting softer). Musicians are just expected to interpret phrases this way naturally.

Crazy right?

I remember when my teacher showed me this idea in high school I thought, "WHY HAS NO ONE TOLD ME THIS BEFORE?!?"

Before that point, I had developed a habit of punching the ending note of each phrase. After all it's an ending point, shouldn't it be emphasized?

Most of my beginner piano students do this naturally, too. It takes intentional practice to learn how to shape your phrases right.

But even though it's kind of an unnatural thing to learn, but when you do it well, it sounds incredible.

Techniques for building to a musical climax

1. Dynamics (getting louder, then getting softer) are the most obvious way to shape your musical phrase.

Use the volume/intensity of your music to trace that musical arch. Start soft and end soft. If you had to choose, I'd say a soft ending is actually a little more important than a soft beginning.

These next two techniques are ways to use your songwriting to create natural phrasing:

2. If you think of your phrase as an arch, use the melody line to trace that arch. Start the phrase lower, go higher at some point in the middle, and then end a little lower.

It's that simple. Of course a straight up and down melody might be a little boring, so feel free to give your melody little peaks and valleys within the phrase.

3. You also can use the rhythm do help de-emphasize the last note of a phrase.

This is one of my favorite techniques. Take a melody where the last note lines up perfectly on beat 1 of a measure.

Now squish up the last few notes of your melody. End your phrase on beat 4 of the previous measure. Not only will this create a really cool syncopation and make the melody less predictable, it will also help de-emphasize the last word of the phrase.

The same technique works with the beginning of the phrase - instead of starting your phrase on beat 1, try starting it on beat 2. Or beat 4 of the previous measure.

Any word that falls on beat 1 or beat 3 of a measure is going to be naturally emphasized because beats 1 and 3 are the "strong" beats, while beats 2 and 4 are considered the "weak" beats. Use that to your advantage to create a less predictable ending to your phrases!

Now of course not every single melody in pop music is a flawless example of phrasing. If melodies conformed perfectly to these rules (or any rule!), music would be so boring.

Some phrases are only ascending lines.

Some phrases deliberately emphasize the last word for dramatic effect. (Especially in genres like jazz or funk - it can be a really cool effect!)

Some phrases get soft in the middle.

But by borrowing this "phrasing" concept from classical music, you can shape your music (and your vocal interpretation) to be really powerful.

P.S. If you're looking for examples, Adele interprets phrases really well - she rarely emphasizes the last word or syllables of a phrase and does a great job of subtly "dying away" at the end of phrases.

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