Q+A: What is musical phrasing?

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Recently, a couple people have asked questions about musical phrasing, so I figured it’d be a good idea to do a quick Q+A on the topic. As always, feel free to leave any questions in the comments and I’ll try to answer them as best as I can!


Slurs and musical phrasing

To start, let’s cover some basic definitions. Slurs mean to play legato, or smooth/connected, and are represented by a big swoopy line:

musical phrasing

Phrasing is also represented by these slurs, but in a more macrocosm sort of way. Phrasing goes beyond just playing the notes smooth.

The way I always like to explain musical phrasing is by comparing it to written language. When you read words, you don’t just see each word as an individual unit. Your eyes look for larger structures, absorbing whole sentences at a time. Even though you read words one-by-one, your eyes scan ahead to see the larger structure created by commas and periods.

Musical phrasing as sentences

Think of musical phrases as sentences, or parts of sentences. You might imagine at the end of a phrase is a comma, or a period.

When you read music, of course you read the notes one-by-one, but just like with words and books, your eyes tend to scan to the larger structure of the piece. This gives you a sense of direction as you play. You’re not just playing a random, endless stream of notes, you’re working to a goal – to get to the end of a sentence (phrase).

More literary comparisons

Think about reading out loud from a book. If your eyes didn’t scan ahead to find the commas and periods, you wouldn’t know when you had a breath coming up! That would be a very stressful way to go about it. The same is true with piano. Without these breaks, it would be like a book with no punctuation. We’d have no shape or structure and it would be very stressful.

How to implement musical phrasing on piano

So that’s all well and good from a theoretical standpoint, but what about actually interpreting phrasing on the piano?

Basically, you want to give the impression of a “breath” between phrase breaks. You don’t necessarily want to stop and pause at a phrase break, as that would create rhythmic inaccuracies (exceptions to that might be at some important cadences). But you do want to “lift” the notes instead of slurring them all together. You want to create breaks between the phrases.

Shaping musical phrases

Another important aspect of musical phrasing is shaping the phrases. Let’s go back to the reading example. Here’s a sentence: The weather outside is snowy and cold. When you say it, it’s not monotone, all at one volume level. There are some subtle rises and falls.

You want to think like this when you play phrases on piano. Think about creating a subtle shape, instead of just a monotone. This is what really makes music beautiful. Maybe you have a subtle crescendo, diminuendo, or even a subtle acceleration or ritardando.

Conclusion

A final thought on phrasing – a quote from that awesome composer Chopin. Chopin said to a student, “he who phrases incorrectly is like a man who does not understand the language he speaks.” Keep this idea in your head as you play and you’ll find you play more musically, expressively, and beautifully.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.