Musical phrasing

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Musical phrasing is the manner in which a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music, in order to express an emotion or impression. A musician accomplishes this by deviating stylistically from the sheet music—altering tone, tempo, dynamics, articulation, inflection, and other characteristics. Phrasing can emphasise a concept in the music or a message in the lyrics; or it can digress from the composer's intention.


  • Phrasing. The art of dividing a melody into groups of connected sounds so as to bring out its greatest musical effect including also the placing of accent — cres. and decres., rall. and accel., rubato, etc. [...]
    • John Clifford, The musiclover's handbook, containing (1) a pronouncing dictionary of musical terms and (2) biographical dictionary of musicians (1911)
  • The art of phrasing by a performer is often instinctive and is one of the features by which a supreme artist may be distinguished from one of lesser inspiration, whether conductor, singer, or instrumentalist.
    • Michael Kennedy and Joyce Bourne, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (1996)
  • The art of phrasing is essential for expressiveness in music. The impact of a musical phrase is dependent on how it is shaped by the individual performer, who [...] will have considerable freedom in structuring the perceptual surface of the musical auditory stream. At the level of the individual phrase, there are infinite possibilities for variation of the so-called expressive devices in music, such as timing and dynamic shape.[1]
    • Kristoffer Jensen and Ole Kühl
  • Phrasing is always something essentially personal. It has really no fixed laws [...] and depends wholly on the musical and the poetical sense of the performer.
  • No two artists phrase the same passage in exactly the same manner
  • [...] Phrasing, like other more aesthetic branches [...], is one of those things for which a detailed scheme of instruction cannot well be laid down. It can be demonstrated, violin in hand, but not described. Furthermore, the violinist is characteristically so dependant on the mood of the moment, the accidental influence of temper and disposition, that the same musician seldom plays the same phrase twice in exactly the same manner.
  • Phrasing/musicality is not slavishly following a musical phrase, but rather a prolonging or a shortening of the physical action that serves to underscore the flow of the music.
    • Anna Paskevska; Ballet beyond tradition (2005)
  • [...] inherent limitations of musical notation itself: no single slur mark can possibly capture the multifarious groupings simultaneously present at various hierarchical levels [...]
    • Eugene Narmour, The analysis and cognition of melodic complexity: the implication-realization model (1992)
  • Phrasing. Most teachers are referring to some degree of phrasing with or without rubato when they admonish a student to be 'more musical'. Phrasing can certainly be taught, especially when the student is shown the parallels to the spoken phrase, and declamatory delivery. Just as a fine actor projects the meaning of the sentences of the playwright with various pitch contours, so does the string player project the meaning of the musical phrases of the composer. Where does the phrase begin and end? Which note or notes are to be stressed as the high points of that phrase? Where is the point of arrival? Does the phrase contain any interior smaller phrases, as embedded phrases or clauses in a sentence? Are there secondary ideas which should be delineated clearly? Is the phrase a declarative one, receding dynamically as it completes? ("Today is a lovely day.") Or is it a question, requiring an increasing dynamic at the end, just as the human voice goes up in a questioning manner ("Is today a lovely day?").
    • Pamela Goldsmith, Playing Musically, (Strings Magazine, Nov. 1994.)
  • Upon a careful analysis of this term phrasing as it is understood and used by scholarly musicians, what exactly do we find its meaning to be? We find it used in three senses : first, as referring to a clear perception of the formal division of music into well-defined sentences and their parts; secondly, as referring to the right method of marking those divisions so that in the rendering of the music they may be evident to the hearer; and, thirdly, as referring to the correct and expressive rendering of each division.
    • J. Alfred Johnstone, Touch, phrasing and interpretation (1900)
  • When the technical problems of finger dexterity have been solved, it is too late to add musicality, phrasing and musical expression. That is why I never practise mechanically. If we work mechanically, we run the risk of changing the very nature of music.
  • A good performance is so full of these minute retardations and accelerations that hardly two measures will occupy exactly the same time. It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically - the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy. It may therefore be suggested, in conclusion, that the use of the metronome, even to determine the average rate of speed, is dangerous.
  • Most of us express ourselves very well indeed just in ordinary speech, and there is a nice sense of rhythm about it. When you think about this in relation to musical phrasing, you will understand why the metrical system is really opposed to natural musical expression.
    • Robert Noehren; An organist's reader: essays (1999)
  • As in speech, so also in Music, phrasing always implies a break in the continuity of the legato. You must have commas, etc., in your speech, and you must provide them [...] as a breaking of sound-continuity [...]. Many players forget this necessity, and mistakenly fancy their phrases to be quite well defined, while all the time they are connecting each new phrase to each preceding one in an unbroken continuity [...]
    • Tobias Matthay; Musical Interpretation (1918)
  • Again, the important subject of phrasing is so often treated carelessly that its doctrines seem to be little better than a sort of cant It may seem strange to call so familiar a term as "phrasing" a mystery; but very often it is unintelligent familiarity that makes mysteries of things. This word "phrasing " is one of those most frequently heard in the mouths of teacher, pupil, listener and critic; it is an indispensable word for the article writer and bookmaker ; it is a sort of universal charm word for the would-be musician. Indiscriminate usage, unintelligent usage, cant usage, "devitalises" words, and makes mysteries of them.[...]
  • And, again, how many pupils are there who after informing you that such a player phrased beautifully, will, at the piano, favour one with such a practical example of complete ignorance of the subject, by an easy flow of unpunctuated rubbish [...] The cant of phrasing — that affectation of knowledge and attempt to veil ignorance by the use of a high sounding or impressive shibboleth not clearly understood by the user — is as plentiful in musical highways and byeways as are blackberries in summer hedgerows.
    • J. Alfred Johnstone; Touch, phrasing and interpretation (1900)
  • The dead level of monotony which we notice in the performance of some violinists is, in the main, due to a lack of proper phrasing. They seem content to play the notes as they are written, and apparently do not realize that a melody is something more than a long string of tones to be sounded in succession. [...] The melody is not a projection of successive notes; it is carefully and consistently built up of melodic-units, each of them independent, yet all dependent on each other, and calling for various degrees of rhythmic and emotional accentuation.
  • Phrasing can never be made a mechanical process, without perverting and artificializing the whole manner of delivery.


  1. Towards a Model of Musical Chunks by Kristoffer Jensen and Ole Kühl

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