To interpret and perform music at a high level, it’s essential to understand the components of musical form. I recently discussed and defined the shortest musical units, figures and motives. After figures and motives, the next biggest musical unit (and definitely the most important for purposes of interpretation) is the phrase.

As pointed out by numerous music theorists, the musical phrase is poorly defined compared to phrases in written language. In fact, some of the most famous theorists and music dictionaries define the phrase in different and sometimes contradictory ways! Nevertheless, by considering the various definitions, it’s possible to find common ground and develop a way of understanding and defining the phrase that makes logical sense in most musical situations.

A Phrase Is A Complete Musical Thought

Most definitions include the idea that a phrase is a “complete musical thought.” In fact, the phrase is the shortest complete musical thought, as a motive or figure (which are both shorter) are too short to be considered a “complete thought.”

A Phrase Ends with a Cadence

Most theorists and dictionaries agree that phrases end with a cadence. (A cadence is a harmonic progression (sequence of chords) that suggests a temporary repose or resolution. If you studied music theory in college, you may remember that the basic cadences are authentic, half, plagal and deceptive.)

A Phrase Has a Contour and Climax

A phrase has a rising and/or falling contour in the sequence of pitches that constitute it. Of course, there are exceptions, but this is largely true.

Additionally, a phrase has a climax. Understanding where the climax is is critical for interpreting a piece at a high level. The climax may be an expressive harmony, a dissonance, a longer note, or a high (or sometimes low) note. As William Newman pointed out, if it’s not otherwise obvious the climax is usually on the last strong beat before the final note of the phrase.

A Phrase Can’t Be Defined By Its Length

It’s also important to understand what a phrase is not. Some theorists define phrases by their length, since there is so much music in which the typical phrase is 2 or 4 measures long – especially in hymns, folk music, and much “early” classical music. Still, defining a musical phrase by its length would be like trying to define an English phrase by the number of words in it. It’s not a foolproof way of doing so.

Tips for Identifying Phrases

In addition to the above criteria, here are two more tips for identifying the beginning and ends of phrases:

Very often, a phrase will begin on the same beat of the measure as the preceding phrase.

Phrases very rarely, if ever, end on suspensions or passing notes.

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