A phrase is a unit of musical time. The term applies to melody, or to a total texture; whether we are listening to Gregorian chant or a Beethoven symphony or a hunk of rock ‘n’ roll, we are hearing a procession of phrases. Most of us think of melody in terms of phrases: “…structurally, a unit approximating to what one could sing in a single breath,” as Arnold Schoenberg wrote in Fundamentals of Musical Composition. Douglass Green’s Form in Tonal Music is coy: “Writers on music seem to agree only that the phrase: 1) exhibits some degree of completeness; and 2) comes to a point of relative repose.” Whether you look for a musical definition of “phrase” in Webster’s or in different musical dictionaries and encyclopedias, you will find a lot of confusing answers; yet musicians use the term every day. Here, it is easiest to say that the phrase is the basic practical quantity of melody. To make an analogy that isn’t perfect: sometimes it is convenient or necessary to measure wine by drops or milliliters, or by bottles or barrels; but the basic familiar quantity of wine, as we experience it, is the full glass.
Most of the music we know best proceeds in regular phrases: whatever the meter or rhythm, we sense the regular phrase as a fourfold grouping: four bars, eight bars in moderate tempo, sometimes two bars in slow tempo, sixteen bars in fast tempo. Regular phrases often come in pairs, and these pairs often constitute a small form by themselves, or regular part of a larger form. One familiar type of paired phrases is parallel phrases: two phrases that are identical except for their endings. (^1 means the tonic note, first degree of the scale; ^2 the supertonic or second degree, etc.)
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was || dry, [ending on ^2]
So hot last night, I froze to death, Susannah, || don’t you cry. [ends on ^1]
Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus E- || lysium, [ending on ^2}
Wir betreten, feuertrunken, himmlische, dein || Heiligtum. [ends on ^1]
Symmetric phrases are like parallel phrases in that their shape and melodic substance are closely similar, but with different harmony, as in cases like the following, which can be called dominant-symmetric, with dominant harmony answering tonic and vice versa.
Balanced phrases are paired phrases of equal length and without precise melodic or harmonic similarities, but with a sense of belonging together, the second answering the first. St. Anne is a good illustration among the tunes we have examined so far, but there are untold millions of melodies having a balanced phrase structure.
If you were to examine melodies in twenty or a hundred different hymns or songs or sonata movements according to these categories just named, you would find many good examples, with innumerable small differences as well as close similarities from bar to bar. Inexhaustible variety is one of the things that makes melody in music inexhaustibly interesting and artistically rich. Regular phrases, two, four, or eight bars, may dominate music of all types, from Italian Renaissance frottola and Elizabethan madrigal to Beethoven’s quartets to Chopin’s mazurkas to Mahler’s symphonies to Debussy’s La mer, even to parts of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
But of course there are irregular phrases in melody as well. Some are regular phrases that are modified in one way or another, such as by extension or condensation; others are naturally non-four from the moment of their composition. Count up the number of bars in any sonata movement or symphony or string quartet and you certainly won’t find that it’s a multiple of four, except by accident. As music students we are all surprised to recognize that Mozart’s whirling overture to Figaro begins with a phrase seven bars long, not eight, and then we wonder how the phrase could be altered to include eight bars (any such adjustment would ruin it, no doubt).
Here is a lovely melody in two symmetric phrases, first with I, second with V, each of which is (unusually) three bars long in an unusual 9/8 (triplet) meter:
Regular phrases are found everywhere in dance music. You all remember Beethoven’s Minuet in G, which is in every beginner’s piano bench. This is no. 2 of Six minuets, WoO10, composed 1796; each one exactly 16 bars long and each one followed by a Trio section 16 more bars long. Very soon thereafter the minuet went out of fashion, to be succeeded by the deutscher Tanz and then the waltz, which, in uncounted thousands, maybe millions, of examples, emblematized an entire century in Vienna; it didn’t do so badly in other countries, either, including America, where it invaded the realm of popular song with outstanding success: “School Days,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “And the Band Played On,” “Lover,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” etc. etc. Schubert’s Originaltänze op. 9, later retitled Erste Walzer, were published in 1821; there are 36 of them in all, each one consisting of 8 bars repeated, then a second 8 bars repeated. (There are a very few small exceptions, like a two-bar left-hand introduction in no. 34.) The rule is one harmony per bar, and each 8 bars constitutes a phrase. Here is a familiar example of a waltz melody in dominant-symmetric phrases:
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.