Learn all about phrasing in music and what it can do for your piano playing
Did you know that there is much more to making music on the piano than just playing the keys? Music sounds better and is easier to connect with when it’s used as a way to express feelings. When music is played without emotion, you may notice that it sounds really flat and one-dimensional. So how do you connect feelings to the music? The key is through musical phrasing, which we will define and discuss in the following article. Read on to learn more!
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What is a phrase in music?
A musical phrase is a passage of notes that work together to create a musical thought, very similar to a group of words that work together to create a spoken sentence. Like a spoken English sentence, musical phrases end with a musical punctuation mark called a cadence. Musical phrases may be short or long and they may end high like a question or lower like a statement.
What is a cadence?
As mentioned previously, a cadence is similar to a punctuation mark. A cadence tells the musician and the listener if the musical idea is over (as if there is a period at the end) or if the idea will continue (similar to a question mark or comma).
An example of a common cadence would be the half cadence. A half cadence occurs when a phrase ends with the chord progression I – V. Ending with a V chord may lead the listeners to think that the musician has more to say, so you could think of the half cadence as a question or only part of an idea. It signals that there is more to come! Probably not a great cadence to use to end a song or piece of music, right?
Another very common cadence is the authentic cadence. An authentic cadence occurs when a phrase ends with the chord progression V – I (or V7 – I). These cadences often sound similar to a statement and like the music has reached a sort of conclusion, even if brief. In this way, you could think of the authentic cadence as an answer to a question, as a period, or even an exclamation mark! This cadence can sound very satisfying when it is used at the end of a song or piece of music.
What is the definition of phrasing in music?
Phrasing in music is defined as the method by which a musician shapes a passage of musical notes with emotion. Certain choices made by the performer can make a passage of music sound unique and can give those notes emotional meaning. Read on to see how this works!
What is phrasing in music used for? How important is phrasing in music?
Musical phrasing is used to combine emotional meaning with the notes that you are playing. Is this important? Extremely important! Without phrasing, the music is more difficult to enjoy and connect with.
Phrasing in music is similar to phrasing that is done when speaking a language, like English, Spanish, or German. For example, say the sentence, “I enjoy reading books.” There are so many different ways to say just these four words. Repeat this sentence with no emotion at all. Notice that it sounds very flat and like it has little meaning. Now say it as if the sentence is true and you really do enjoy reading books. What word did you stress the most? Next, say the sentence with sarcasm: as if you don’t mean the words at all. Did the sound of the words change? Did the word that you placed emphasis on change? This is how phrasing works!
What are some musical phrasing techniques to try on piano?
There are a lot of musical phrasing techniques to try on your piano at home that can help you infuse your music-making with emotion. Some important techniques to consider include articulation, dynamics, inflection, tone, and tempo.
Depending on the style of music that you are playing, there may be more or less instructions for phrasing written on the sheet music. The classical music tradition is to perform the music as intended by the composer, which includes following all written markings for tempo, dynamics, and articulations. Other musical traditions are freer and leave phrasing up to the performer’s interpretation, such as in jazz, pop music, or even earlier classical music.
As you play a phrase of music, there are many different articulations that can add detail to the musical phrasing, such as slurs (legato), staccato, accents, and marcato. These can be marked on the music, and are different ways to play the notes. When notes are slurred, they’re played smooth and connected. A staccato note is a short sound with a space of silence after it, which is created by pressing and immediately releasing the piano key. An accented note will be played louder than the notes around it. Each of these articulations add meaning and make the phrase sound more interesting.
How loudly or softly you play a passage will also have a large effect on your phrasing. Examples of dynamics include forte (loud), piano (soft), mezzo-piano (medium soft), mezzo-forte (medium loud), fortissimo (very loud), pianissimo (very soft), crescendo (getting louder as you play), and diminuendo (getting softer as you play). If you play a phrase as only piano (soft) or forte (loud), it might feel one-dimensional, but using a diminuendo or crescendo as you play, or a combination of both, can create more interest in the listener and beauty in the sound. As stated before, in classical music these details are often indicated on the sheet music, but there is some room for how those details are interpreted by the individual performer.
Tempo is a very important element to phrasing. There are several ways to play a single phrase, depending on if you choose to play it with metronomic steadiness or push and pull the tempo. Pushing and pulling the tempo is called rubato. Certain classical composers such as Bach should be played with metronomic steadiness, but others like Chopin should be played with a healthy amount of rubato.
Examples of phrasing in music
In a written article like this, it’s easy to show examples of written phrases, because your eyes can see written phrases. Showing musical phrasing is more difficult, because it is something that your ears hear. Here are some examples of recordings and some listening prompts for you to check out!
Musical Phrasing Example #1: Tempo
- Here is a recording of Ingrid Haebler performing Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major. Listen to the first couple phrases of this piece and notice her speed.
- Now compare her performance to the first couple phrases of the same piece performed by Christopher Eschenbach.
- Do you notice a difference? Who plays at a quicker tempo and who plays at a slower tempo? This piece comes from the classical era, so once the performer chooses a tempo, they keep that tempo steady and even. You can hear this in both pieces, but their phrasing still sounds quite different because they choose slightly different starting tempos, which still fall under the definition of Allegro.
- Note: Allegro means “Quick, lively, and cheerful!”
Musical Phrasing Example #2: Rubato in Tempo
- Rubato is a pushing and pulling that can happen within a chosen tempo. This style is most commonly used in the romantic era, especially by composers such as Frederic Chopin.
- Here is an example of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor performed extremely metronomically, meaning that there is no use of rubato.
- Here is a different example with a lot of rubato, which is performed by Khatia Buniatishvili.
- Notice the difference in the phrasing? Both begin with a Largo tempo, but Khatia’s is a bit slower than the first example. Because the first example is so stiffly performed, it remains the same speed throughout every phrase. Khatia may push faster or pull the tempo back depending on the amount and type of emotion she wants to add to her phrasing.
Musical Phrasing Example #3: Dynamics
- In this Hoffman Academy video, Joseph Hoffman walks us through the power of dynamics and shows us a few examples.
- For more information and examples of phrasing, watch this Hoffman Academy video on Phrasing and Expression!
By using some of these techniques listed above, you will be able to add a lot of your own emotions and personal expression to your playing! We here at Hoffman Academy wish you a wonderful day of playing beautiful music.