What is a phrase in music?
When you hear your favourite musicians perform there will be something about their playing that attracts you to them. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but you just know that you like what they’re doing. I feel a lot of this attraction comes down to the way the music is being communicated. Depending on your personality and musical likes, you’ll look for different things when listening to music. But inside the genres are nuisances which separate one performer to another. These differences are largely down to the way each musician phrases their solo or chord playing. And these unique phrasing choices give each performer their unique musical personality. So what is a phrase?
Fundamentals of music
To answer the question ‘what is a phrase?’ we need to understand a little bit of the fundamentals of music. What is music? Well the key components to any piece of music are melody. harmony and rhythm. Melody deals with the single top line – the thing you sing along to. Harmony deals with the chords – the bed on which the melody sits on top of. Finally the rhythm ties everything together by creating repeated and varied patterns of sound.
Where does phrasing come in?
Ok so with the knowledge of melody, harmony and rhythm we bring in the notion of patterns. In music patterns are usually small bursts of musical ideas which repeat in slightly varied ways. These patterns can come from the melody and rhythm or focus more on the chords and rhythm. Take for example “Wonderwall” by Oasis. There are essentially five chords played in slightly different orders throughout the song. However the specific phrased strumming pattern combined with these chords gives the song it’s unique iconic status. If we change the rhythm, or change the chord structure we may well lose this iconic sound.
Another example would be the solo to Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry. The song itself is essentially a rock and roll blues. There’s nothing unique about a rock n roll blues as it follows a structured 12 bar format. Yet Johnny B Goode has an iconic solo. It is the combination of the melodic choices along with the rhythms used that sets Chuck Berry’s solo apart from the rest.
Developing musical phrasing
Hopefully now you are not asking “what is a phrase?” and asking “how do I develop my musical phrases?”. This is something that for me is probably the most important thing to practise in music. Anyone can play a bunch of chords. Anyone can take one pattern of the minor pentatonic scale and play a bunch of notes from it. The difference between a world class player, to a good player, to an average player to a beginner comes down to the phrases they choose. Some times I listen to certain players and think “How on earth did they come up with that?”. Saxophonist Michael Brecker’s note choices, rhythms and lengths of ideas are fresh every time you hear them. As are someone like Kenny Burrell on guitar. Yet they must have developed these skills some how.
For me, it’s important to listen to a lot of music. The more music you listen to and the more varied it is the more phrasing you are naturally exposed to. If you only listen to one style of music then you will only pick up that style’s rhythms, harmony and melody. That’s fine but it will not make you sound unique or different. You’ll be a clone of your chosen genre. By listening to a wide range of styles and intently, you will pick up ideas that you can bring into a new song or solo that you’re learning.
Imitate then Innovate
The best way to develop great phrasing at first is to imitate the solos and strumming patterns you like the most. Listen to your favourite musicians playing and try to copy them best you can. Remember you’re not actually copying them, you’re copying all their musical influences without realising it. From there you can take their solo and start altering the note choices, lengths of ideas and rhythms. At this point you will no longer sound like an imitating musician but rather a fresh free thinking performer. Now this process is something that takes decades to do and I’m still refining, improving and defining my own style. As I expose myself to more music, understand the mind set of the person I’m listening to, I begin to see where I can bring in my own essence to the music.
Keep doing it
A final thought for you. You may have no idea where to start when it comes to developing great musical phrasing. Ultimately trust your instincts and keep at it. Keep listening, playing, making mistakes, improving and having fun. At some point it all comes together with time, practise and dedication.
If you do need any help improving your phrasing or still want to know what is a phrase feel free to get in touch. I teach guitar and piano lessons at my studio in Borehamwood and Skype/Facetime lessons online.