What is a Phrase? A Musician’s Guide to Musical Phrases

You may have heard people refer to music as a language, and in many ways, this is accurate. Music is its own language. We use it to communicate feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Music also has a set of rules that it follows, much like grammar and syntax for languages like English and Spanish. Music can fit into different structural units, like beats, measures, and phrases.

You may have heard of the concept of phrases in music, and you’re wondering, “what is a phrase?” Well, in today’s post, that’s exactly what we’re going to discuss.

We’re going to start off with the phrase definition. Then, we’ll look at antecedent and consequent phrases, and the different ways to mark a phrase in music.

Let’s get started by answering the question, “what are phrases in music?”

Phrase Definition in Music

Let’s keep using the analogy of music as a language for a minute.

Languages are made up of sentences, and sentences are made up of words. But at the smallest level of a language like English or Spanish, we have the letters of the alphabet.

Music has similar levels of organization too. For example, instead of the alphabet, we have individual music notes. So each individual note is like a letter of the alphabet.

Now we go up to the next step. Musical chords and intervals are like words. We’re adding more depth and context to our starting letter.

If you think about language, one letter by itself doesn’t really mean anything. If I wrote a letter ‘O’, you wouldn’t look at that and think, “Oh, what a great story.” But if I wrote a whole sentence after the letter, like “Once upon a time, there was a monster,” now it makes a lot more sense.

Phrases in music are just like sentences in spoken language. It’s a unit of music that makes sense musically if you play it by itself.

A phrase is usually a melody, and it might include smaller units like motifs, themes, and individual notes.

The simplest way to remember phrases in music is to think of them as musical sentences. With a phrase, you can tell when it starts, and you can tell when it’s over. You can also distinguish between one phrase and the next.

How Long is a Phrase?

Traditionally speaking, phrases in classical music were four bars long, and they usually ended with a cadence.

Of course, that’s not a strict rule. Phrases can be longer, and shorter, than four bars.

The basic rule is that each phrase should be its own little “packet” of melody, that stands out from the rest of the song around it. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

One example of a two bar phrase is the opening of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” which has a very distinct phrase in the beginning of the song.

Pay attention to the first thirteen seconds of this video– that’s the phrase we’re looking at.

You may also hear the main theme repeated several times throughout the song.

Fur Elise- Beethoven

Another way to spot phrases in music is whenever the melody pauses. If it’s a vocal piece, where does the singer pause to take a breath? Where are the natural pauses in the music?

You might also be able to spot phrases by looking at sheet music. For example, the opening of Mozart’s ‘Piano Sonata in C Major” has two phrases that are each two bars long. Each of these phrases has a clear beginning and end, even though the left hand part continues playing without a break.

Here’s a picture of the sheet music, so you can see what it looks like on the music staff:

Phrases in Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, image from Hello Music Theory

Now listen to the first ten seconds of this video, to hear these phrases in action:

Piano Sonata in C Major

The more you practice listening for phrases in music, the easier it will be.

Also, when you have multiple phrases in a row that sound similar, or have similar harmonies, they are called a phrase-group.

So in the Piano Sonata example above, the first two phrases (from 0:00 to 0:10) have similar harmonies. They can be classified as a phrase-group.

Phrase Markings in Music

In your sheet music, you might see a slightly curved line, connecting several notes together.

These markings, which are very similar to slur lines, are there to show the musician that a particular group of notes is a phrase.

In sheet music, slur lines, also called legato, tell you that the notes connected by that line are supposed to be played legato, or smoothly. They should almost blend together from one note to the next.

This is the opposite of staccato, where the notes should be played separately with a distinct sound.

Although slur markings and phrase markings can be interchangeable, they have one small difference.

The notes in a slur marking are all legato, whereas notes under a phrase marking might be staccato.

That’s the main difference. If you see a marking in your music, and you’re not sure if it’s a slur marking or a phrase marking, check for any staccato notes.

Another small difference between phrase markings and slur lines is that phrases tend to be longer, while slur lines are usually shorter. However, that depends on the music.

Here are some examples of phrase markings in music, from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 332:

phrase markings in sheet music (image by Wikimedia Commons)

If you are playing a string instrument, or an instrument that does not involve breath (like violin or piano), these phrase markings tell you to blend one note to the next. There should not be any staccatos unless the music specifically marks them.

And if you see phrase markings or slur lines in your music, and you’re a vocalist or you play a wind instrument, these markings tell you not to breathe between the notes. You can breathe at the end of the phrase. But no breathing in the middle of a phrase.

Starting on the Upbeat

In most time signatures, a bar of music will have 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, or 12 beats. Some time signatures that are a little more rare have 5, 7, or 11 beats in a bar.

The first beat of the bar is called the downbeat. No matter what time signature it is, if there’s 2 beats or 12 beats or anything in between, the last beat of the bar is always called the upbeat.

Most music starts on the downbeat, at the beginning of the first bar. But what if we started a song on the upbeat, at the end of a bar?

When a piece of music starts on or before the upbeat, we call those first notes the anacrusis.

One example of a song with an anacrusis is “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles.

Every phrase starts with an anacrusis, and you can hear this because the vocals always start before the guitar. (Listen to the words “In the…” “Lived a…” “And he…” and “In the…” because these are the anacrusis notes in the first verse.)

Yellow Submarine – The Beatles

Another very famous example of the anacrusis, sometimes called the pickup, can be found in the song “Happy Birthday.”

The word “happy” is on the upbeat (last beat) of the first bar, and the word “birthday” starts in the next bar, on the downbeat (first beat).

Happy birthday sheet music with pickup, image by Hello Music Theory

Antecedent and Consequent Phrases

The word antecedent means before, and the word consequent means after. So when you have two phrases that are back to back, they are antecedent – consequent phrases.

Antecedent and consequent phrases are an example of a phrase group, where multiple phrases sound very similar or have similar harmonies.

The antecedent (the first phrase) either ends with a half cadence (it ends on the V chord but not the tonic), or an imperfect cadence (it ends on the tonic, but not strongly).

The consequent (second phrase) is an echo of the first phrase. It sounds very similar at first, but instead of ending on a half or imperfect cadence, this phrase ends on a perfect cadence. (A perfect cadence is when the music goes from a chord V to a chord I.)

One great example of an antecedent- consequent phrase group is the opening of “Fur Elise.”

You can hear in the first half of the opening, one phrase ends on a higher note, like it’s asking a question. Then the phrase repeats, but this time, it has a different ending that sounds much more conclusive, like an answer.

Another example of antecedent – consequent phrases is in the famous folk song “Greensleeves.” (You might also know it as the tune of “What Child is This.”)

greensleeves phrases on sheet music (image by Wikimedia Commons)

On the top line, notice how phrase A and phrase A1 start out the same, but they end differently. Phrase A ends with a half cadence (HC), and phrase A1 ends with an authentic cadence (AC).

This is repeated in the bottom line, with phrase B and phrase B1. Phrase B is the antecedent, and phrase B1 is the consequent.

Phrases in Music: A Summary

There are lots of different kinds of musical phrases.

Some might be two bars long, others might be eight bars, or even longer.

Phrases work like sentences. They must be fully contained with a beginning, middle, and end, and they are separate from the rest of the melody.

And just like sentences, it doesn’t matter how long or short the phrase is, so long as it gets its meaning across.

Hopefully, this post helps you learn how to spot phrases in your music, and how to tell when a phrase starts and stops. This is a useful skill for musicians to know, so keep practicing, and soon it will become second nature to you.

Do you have any questions about phrases in music? Leave a comment and let us know!

Jessica Roberts
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