The Fine Art of Phrasing

May 8, 2012

By Armen Donelian

performance, where two worlds merge: science and emotion. Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy are just a few classical pianists whose music epitomizes effective phrasing. Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Ahmad Jamal, and Bill Evans are among my favorite jazz pianists for that very same reason. The music’s actual content will indicate your best approach to phrasing it.

1. Phrasing Basics

A phrase is a basic musical unit that’s rhythmic, melodic, and/or harmonic in nature (often it’s all three) and which communicates musical meaning. Ex. 1a is mainly rhythmic, with minimal pitch content. Sing or scat it a few times to yourself—it’s tricky! Since the second half is essentially an answer to the first, the musical meaning arises from call-and-response. Ex. 1b is primarily melodic, based on an A melodic minor scale and simple rhythmic content. It’s lyrical, smooth and flowing, and conveys musical meaning through its “rise and fall” contour, gradually slowing rhythmic values, and modal chromaticism. Sing it a few times, and then play it in a slow, even tempo. Ex. 1c on page 38 is typical of a Baroque fugue theme, and its strong suit is harmony. Play it and listen to how the melody outlines the chords indicated by the symbols. Ex. 1d on page 38 is a complex phrase in 5/4 meter, consisting of three phrases separated by rests, each with interrelated rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic aspects that form a larger musical statement.

2. Rhythmic Phrasing

How notes are grouped, and how these groupings affect your interpretive performance, is what phrasing is all about. When studying phrasing, begin by examining a phrase’s rhythm. Ignore the pitches and sing or tap it a few times, slowly. Then, look for strategic points of emphasis that serve the overall rhythmic mission of the tune: reduced or long rhythms, tension created by polyrhythms, that kind of thing. For example, a long rhythm of dotted quarter-notes underlies the first half of Ex. 1a. In the second half of the example, the quarter-note triplet is the underlying rhythm. You can emphasize the call-and-response character of Ex. 1a by using contrasting articulations in the two halves of the phrase, as in Ex. 2 below.

3. Melodic Phrasing

It’s also important to study a phrase’s pitch content. Begin by removing its rhythms to expose its pitches: Sing them a few times, slowly and intentionally out of time. Then, look for strategic pitch motives made of underlying intervals, note patterns, or harmonies, to group notes accordingly. (The notes in Ex. 1d consist of short sequences of stepwise thirds that are developed, repeated, transposed, inverted, and rearranged). Also, notice the “ups and downs” in a melody, known as changes in contour. These can suggest ups and downs in loudness, too. In Ex. 1b there’s a rise through bar 1, a fall in bar 2, and so on. This is a good starting point for phrase interpretation and expression, as in Ex. 3.

4. Harmonic Phrasing

Performing every contour as in Ex. 3, without regard for a note’s harmonic function, would vastly oversimplify the art of phrasing. Back in Ex. 1c, the B natural in bar 2 deserves emphasis even though it’s the lowest note. Why? Because, in this phrasing situation, its role as harmonic guide tone embedded in the melody notes C and B overrides its descending pitch contour. The Eb in bar 4 deserves emphasis for the same reason, as seen in Ex. 4.

5. Guide Tone Phrasing

Guide tones outline polyphonic voice leading of harmonic cadences. They create and/or resolve harmonic tension and contain significant harmonic content. They clarify the music’s harmonic structure, so they really deserve expressive emphasis. The descending guide tones that deserve this emphasis in Ex. 5 are in bar 2 (E), bar 3 (A), bar 4 (Db and B) and bar 5 (E).

What Does the Music Want?

“In order to develop and project a personal sense of phrasing, you need to educate yourself thoroughly about concrete musical details—what they mean, and what they’re instructing you to do,” says Armen Donelian, who has performed with Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and Mongo Santamaria. Currently on the faculty of William Paterson University and the New School, he also teaches at top conservatories in Europe. Donelian’s latest album Leapfrog and his new book Whole Notes: A Piano Masterclass are available now. Find out more at


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