Phrasing – What Is It?


Beethoven in 1815
Image via Wikipedia

There are two types of phrasing in songs – lyrical and musical. Phrasing is defined in the dictionary as “a sequence of words intended to have meaning”. Its definition in relation to music is “a short passage or segment, often consisting of four measures or forming part of a larger unit.” In this article we’re going to focus MAINLY on musical phrasing.

Let’s look at an old Beatles song “Let It Be” to better define what musical phrases are. If you know the song, great…if you don’t, try to find it and have a listen.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

If you look at this verse the way I’ve written it out above, you’ll see four separate lines. The first line of the lyric (when I find myself in times of trouble) looks like a phrase, but it isn’t a complete thought. The second line completes the phrase and the thought. Musically, the first line isn’t complete either. If you remember how the melody goes, that will help you hear that the first two lines together become a complete musical phrase.

“Speaking words of wisdom, let it be”…this is another phrase, different from the first one. When we get to the next part of the verse:

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

Now, you see the musical phrases begin to repeat. The first two lines in this part of of the verse are almost the same musical phrasing as in the beginning of the verse, and the second two lines are exactly the same. The only thing that changes is the lyrical content in the first two lines, and a slight difference in melody and meter between “when I find myself” and “and in my hour”. So let’s map this out visually.



First, I’m going to show by bold and italic text, where the musical phrases are:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be

The two bold sections are the same musical phrases, as are the two italic sections. Phrasing is a really important aspect of songwriting. Repeat your musical phrases too often, and a song becomes dull…not repeating enough can lose a listener. In classical music, there are often long sections of music where the phrases don’t repeat.

Returning to “Let It Be”, we can also map the musical phrasing this way:

Phrase 1
Phrase 2
Phrase 1
Phrase 2

This is simple musical phrasing. In popular music, you’ll find shorter musical phrases and more repeats than any other kind of music. The repeats are intentional…they are there to help you remember the song! If you’ve ever been around young children, you’ll recognize their desire for repeated behaviour or sounds. If it entertains them, they’ll always ask you to do it again…make the funny face again, or make the silly sound again. This desire for repetition carries on into their musical listening preferences. Why do you think pop music appeals predominantly to the young listener?

Our listening preferences change as we get older. We still love the “old songs” that we heard when we were kids, but the “new” songs we like to listen to don’t necessarily have the same forms and phrasing that we used to like so much. I personally believe that the music you are exposed to as a child often helps to determine what you are capable of “hearing” as you get older. This is more or less a theory of mine and not backed up by any hard evidence as far as I know :-) Our brains are also wired to hear things differently from others, which is why there is such a wide variety of music out there that appeals to different listeners.

But I’ve ventured off the path here…let’s get back to phrasing. As an exercise, I want you to take a look and listen to one of your most recent songs, and break it down into musical phrases by using the method I used above…phrase 1 and phrase 2, etc. Even though you may not have consciously thought about phrases when you were writing it, you have likely, by osmosis, learned this concept. There are two problems that typically come up for a songwriter in this area. First is the tendency to repeat musical phrases too often. When you get into a rut like this, you don’t always recognize it, but something just feels inane and dull in your song. The opposite of this is, of course, not repeating the musical phrases enough! Long, meandering and incomplete musical phrases leave a listener completely lost. Remember this: listeners will NEVER remember your whole song in one listen. Very few people in the universe can do this (although Beethoven apparently could!) So what does this mean? It means you have to repeat your musical phrases often enough for a listener to remember, and not so much so that you bore them! This can be a very fine line to draw.

Let’s talk about the idea of a “complete” musical phrase. How can you tell when one is finished and the other is beginning? This can be a little tricky. You can probably find a song where a whole verse goes by and a phrase never repeats, but it will likely happen more often than that. Sometimes, the end of a musical phrase can be recognized by the chord changes underneath. For instance, in the song Let It Be, the chords work this way:

………..C…………….G
When I find myself in times of trouble

Am…………..F
Mother Mary comes to me

C…………………..G
Speaking words of wisdom

………F……..C
Let it be

The first chord is a “C” which happens to be the key that this song is in. Very often, returning to the root chord (in this case, C) helps us to define where a musical phrase has ended. In this song, the first line has a C and a G, the next line an Am and an F. Then you’ll notice the third line beginning with a C chord again. It just so happens that the musical phrases follow the same route, the first ending at the F in the second line, and the next one beginning at the C in the third line. This does not happen in every case, but it’s a good example of where you might find the beginning and end of musical phrases.

Do your lyrical and musical phrases have to begin and end at the same time? Well, no, there are no “rules”. But, practically speaking, a listener often unconsciously identifies them as being together. Take a look at your song again…do your lyrical thoughts finish at the same time as the musical phrases? Then take a look at some other popular songs you know. How do their musical and lyrical phrases work together? When you’re writing, experiment…push your lyrical and musical phrasings to where you haven’t been before, and see what happens!

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