Phrase rhythm

Phrase (music)

In music a phrase (Greek φράση, sentence, expression, see also strophe) is a section of music that is relatively self contained and coherent over a medium time scale. In common practice, phrases are often four and most often eight bars, or measures, long. A rough analogy between musical phrases and the linguistic phrase is often made, comparing the lowest phrase level to clauses and the highest to a complete sentence. Thus a phrase will end with a weaker or stronger cadence depending if it is an antecedent or consequent phrase, respectively. Metrically, Edward Cone analyses the "typical musical phrase" as consisting of an "initial downbeat, a period of motion, and a point of arrival marked by a cadential downbeat," while Cooper and Meyer use only two or three pulse groups (strong-weak or strong-weak-weak) (DeLone et al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 3).

Phrases are commonly built from or contain figures, motifs, and cells. Phrases combine to form periods and larger sections of music.

Phrase rhythm is the rhythmic aspect of phrase construction and the relationships between phrases, and "is not at all a cut-and-dried affair, but the very lifeblood of music and capable of infinite variety. Discovering a work's phrase rhythm is a gateway to its understanding and to effective performance." The term was popularized by William Rothstein's Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music. Techniques include overlap, lead-in, extension and expansion, and reinterpretation or elision. (Burkhart 2005).


The 1980 New Grove defines a phrase as follows:

  • a term adopted from linguistic syntax and used for short musical units of various lengths; a phrase is generally regarded as longer than a motif but shorter than a period."

The 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle defines a phrase as follows:

  • "This term, borrowed from grammar, designated a collection of sounds, delimited by two pauses, with a complete sense...of all musical systems, 'tonal rhetoric assured precise delimitation of phrases, by means of hierarchized fixed points of harmonic cadences, which are modelled on articulations in spoken discourse. In modal monody, a pause coinciding with a pause in the text most often occupies the position of phrase-ending...the length of the phrase is quite variable."

Charles Burkhart defines a phrase as follows:

  • "Any group of measures (including a group of one, or possibly even a fraction of one) that has some degree of structural completeness. What counts is the sense of completeness we hear in the pitches not the notation on the page. To be complete such a group must have an ending of some kind....Phrases are delineated by the tonal functions of pitch. They are not created by slurs or by legato performance.................A phrase is not pitches only but also has a rhythmic dimension, and further, each phrase in a work contributes to that work large rhythmic organization."

Other definitions: a phrase is a musical unit.

  • "A series of notes that display a complete musical sense, and that form a natural division of the melodic line, comparable to a phrase in discourse, and constituting a complete whole (a melodic phrase subdivides into various parts that correspond to the indices of discourse)." (Larousse)
  • "A musical phrase is developed idea, having a complete sense." (Falk 1958: 11)
  • "In its most frequent manifestations, it is a passage of four bars culminating in a more or less definite cadence, and possessing as a consequence some degree of completeness within itself." (ibid.)
  • "Phrases vary in length from three to six bars...the four-bar phrase is by far the commonest." (Davie 1966: 19)
  • "The term phrase is one of the most ambiguous in music. Besides the fact that it may validly be used for units of two to eight measures (sometimes even more) in length, it is often incorrectly used for subdivisions of multiple or single phrases." (Stein 1962: 37)
  • "A division of the musical line, somewhat comparable to a clause of a sentence in prose. Other terms for such divisions are period, half-phrase, double phrase, etc...there is no consistency in applying these terms nor can there be...only with melodies of a very simple type, especially those of some dances, can the terms be used with some consistency. (ibid.)


  • DeLone et al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  • Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Musicologie générale et sémiologue, 1987). Translated by Carolyn Abbate (1990). ISBN 0-691-02714-5.
    • 1980 New Grove
    • 1958 Encyclopédie Fasquelle
    • Larousse)
    • Falk (1958).
    • Davie (1966).
    • Stein (1962).
  • Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
    • Burkhart, Charles. "The Phrase Rhythm of Chopin's A-flat Major Mazurka, Op. 59, No. 2".

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