What is “Phrasing” in Music? Interpretation and Expression in Pieces of Music


What does it mean to play guitar expressively? Does this mean we roll our eyes up and make faces like we’re eating the best chocolate cake ever? Or look like we’re in severe pain but enjoying it?

Many people assume that playing with expression and using good phrasing is all intuition. “You just have to feel it.” And this may the case, eventually.

But there are also concrete elements we can practice and use to play music well. In this article and video, we’ll explore these, and talk more about musical phrasing.

The Four Elements of Music

All music is made of just a few basic elements. These are pitch, rhythm, volume, and tone quality. On every instrument, including guitar, these are the building blocks. (Vocalists may also add language and words to the list.)

Pitch (notes)

Pitch is the relative highness or lowness of a note. These are the black dots on the page, and the frets on the guitar.

In classical guitar music, we are given the notes. In improvisational music, such as jazz, we may also choose some or all of the notes.

Rhythm (time)

Rhythm is how the notes exist in time. Rhythm is usually organized around a steady pulse. And each note is placed at a specific point in time relative to the other notes.

There are three parts to each note.

  1. Each note has an initial starting point (the moment we play it).
  2. It then has duration, which is the length of time it sustains.
  3. Then it has an ending, where the note stops ringing. This ending can border another note (connecting smoothly, legato). Or it can border silence, leaving a large or small gap before the next note.

The default in music is to keep rhythm organized and steady. This creates predictability for the listener. It allows us to tap our feet.

But we can also slow down and speed up. This is part of musical expression.

And we can also place individual notes slightly before or after the beat, creating different effects.

Volume

Volume, or intensity, is the relative loudness or softness of the notes. The range will vary by instrument. For example, a trumpet has a different volume range than the guitar. And some instruments, such as the harpsichord, cannot change volume at all.

Playing a piece of music, we can decide the relative volume of each note and phrase. Each section may have a different volume range. For example, one section is quiet and the next is loud.

Within the range, the individual notes will also vary from one to the next. How we organize the volume between notes has a massive impact on the style and mood of the music.

Tone Quality (timbre)

The fourth musical element is tone quality, or timbre (pronounced: ’tam bur). Timbre, on a large scale, is the overall sound of the instrument. This is how we can tell the difference between a violin and a piano.

More locally, we have the different tone qualities possible on the guitar. We have bright, metallic sounds. And we have dark, warm, wooly sounds. We can use these different sounds to help bring the notes to life.

Musical Phrasing Uses the Four Elements

Musical phrasing (expressive playing) is the intentional combination of the four elements.

For example, in a moment of music, we could slow down, get louder, and play with a warmer tone quality. This will create a particular effect.

We could likewise do the opposite and the effect would be far different.

Each element is a study unto itself. We can practice common patterns (more below) and learn when and how to best use them.

The Goal: To Communicate Congruent Musical Ideas

In deciding our phrasing, the main intention should be to communicate congruent musical ideas.

This means that we first understand the psychological character of the music. Then we seek to demonstrate this to the listener. We use the musical elements in various combinations in service to that goal.

One common mistake in deciding on phrasing is to only consider small moments of music. We can sculpt each moment for effect. But ideally, we craft each moment with the larger section and piece in mind.

Each moment serves to bring the music forward toward a climax. The journey of the piece ideally makes sense. Nothing sticks out as “out of character” within the context of the piece. There may be contrasting sections, but the piece works as a whole.

For example, in a slow ballad, a sudden increase in volume (such as accented notes) would likely “break the spell.” It would sound incongruent with the spirit of the piece.

Likewise, in a more avant-garde piece, playing with too little variation may be equally incongruent.

Phrasing Tendencies and Patterns – Rules that Work Most of the Time

Luckily, we have several “rules” and patterns that work well most of the time. While none work 100% of the time, many phrasing patterns sound great ~85% of the time. So if we learn and default to these, our work will be faster and easier. And we’ll sound better.

Some of the most common phrasing patterns use volume. If we master these, everything we play is instantly more musical and understandable. Other patterns apply to common rhythms.

Likewise, some harmonies (strings of chords, or chords in combination) tend to sound most effective played in certain ways. We can analyze our music and let the harmony inform our phrasing decisions.

For some examples of phrasing patterns, click here. Or begin with these:

For in-depth training in musical phrasing and classical guitar technique, consider The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program. It’s a complete system to help you play beautifully, regardless of your current level, age, hand size, or experience. Click here to learn more.

There is More Than One Right Answer (but wrong is wrong)

Music is subjective, but not entirely. There are many possible ways to play each piece. And even if we have a plan for how to play each element of a piece, it will vary slightly each time we play it.

So there is plenty of room for personal expression and style.

But there are also choices that do not serve the intent of the composer. These choices are “wrong.” They may be incongruent with the spirit of the piece. Or they may make the listening experience arduous or unpleasant.

We are all at liberty to play as we will. But to best serve the music, we can seek to understand the music as much as possible. Then we can make musical choices with the goal of demonstrating this understanding to the listener so that they can also understand it.


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.





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