Could you read a book that had no punctuation? Could you play music that had no phrases? Learn all about phrases and why they’re important, including the meaning of key terms such as cadence, period, antecedent, consequent, and phrase mark.
What Is a Phrase?
If we didn’t have punctuation in the English language, we would find long strings of words like these:
You could read that passage two different ways. The first way would look like this:
In English, punctuation helps determine the meanings of words by grouping them together. Likewise in music, the notes are grouped in phrases that help give them meaning. Musical phrases are typically four measures long and there are two different uses of the word phrase in music: the first has to do with the structure of music and is used as a noun, and the second has to do with the expression in music and is used as a verb.
In English, we have phrases which are not complete sentences. There’s an example of a phrase in our ‘lazy dog’ passage:
This isn’t considered a sentence because it’s not a complete thought.
We are left hanging at the end expecting something more to come next. Just like that, musical phrases are part of a musical thought; they aren’t complete thoughts by themselves. Let’s look at the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb:
When you get to the end of the first line, ‘Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb,’ there’s a natural place to stop and take a breath. That is the end of the first musical phrase of this song, but we would never end the song there. We are expecting something to come after this phrase to complete it, just like we expected something to follow our English phrase to complete the thought.
A cadence is the end of a musical phrase. Some cadences are strong and feel like they’re finished, and some are weak and want you to go on to finish the thought. This first line ends with a weak cadence; it doesn’t feel finished.
The second line of the song finishes the thought for us: ‘Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow.’ Notice how the musical thought sounds and feels finished. We could easily end the song here because it feels good; it feels complete. This second line is also a musical phrase, but this phrase ends with a strong cadence.’Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow.
‘When two phrases are put together and the first ends on a weak cadence, and the second ends on a strong cadence, it is called a period. In a period, the first phrase is called an antecedent phrase, and the second phrase is called a consequent phrase. You can think of this as feeling like a question and answer; the consequent phrase completes the thought that is started by the antecedent phrase, just like in Mary Had a Little Lamb:
If you were to have more than two phrases put together, then it would be called a phrase group. This phrase group would not have the two-part ‘weak-strong’ feel.
Phrasing in Music
We have discussed phrases as part of the structure of how music is written, but there is another use of the word ‘phrase’ in music that refers to how music is performed.
When a group of notes is performed together as one musical thought, regardless of the structure of the measures, it is called phrasing.A notation called a phrase mark is an arc placed over a group of notes to tell the musician how to phrase a particular passage of music. Let’s look at an example.When we sang the first phrase of Mary Had a Little Lamb, we took a breath after the first four measures: ‘Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb,’ but what if the composer wanted you to take a breath after every ‘lamb’ in the first phrase? In this case, the composer would use phrase marks to show you where you were supposed to breathe:
- Phrase:a musical thought
- Period: when two phrases are put together and the first ends on a weak cadence, and the second ends on a strong cadence
- Antecedent phrase: the first phrase in a period
- Consequent phrase: the second phrase in a period
- Phrasing: a group of notes performed together as a musical thought
- Phrase group: more than two phrases put together
- Cadence: the end of a musical phrase
- Phrase mark: an arc placed over a group of notes to tell the musician how to phrase a particular passage of music
When you are finished, you should be able to:
- Describe a musical phrase
- Compare musical phrases to punctuation
- Recall the components of a musical phrase
- Explain the difference between a period and a phrase group
- Differentiate between a phrase and phrasing