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MUS654 Session 8: Phrasing and musicality

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“In traditional musical performance practice one rarely comes into direct contact with the question ‘What is musical expression?’ therefore an understanding of this concept remains rather elusive. Expression is not taught or seen as present as a definite skill. Rather it is dealt with as an unconscious process that is the result of many other teachings – through focused training of explicit skills, one simply enables musical expression to happen.” (Boerson, 2008, pp.12-13)


5586525761_c29bf69b93_zPhrasing is one of the things that is often taught like grammar. There are online pages to learn phrasing, and workbooks that can be bought in shops. It is taught in school, and somehow the idea that it can be explained away seems to dilute a bit of the musical magic that comes from being freely creative and musical. A classical, or tonal, phrase is certainly recognisable through listening and reading the score. In Music and Discourse, Toward a semiology of music, Nattiez discusses various definitions of phrase, beginning midway down p. 157 with a definition from the New grove Dictionary of Music:

“a term adopted from linguistic syntax and used for short musical units of various length…”

Nattiez continues (mid p.158) to introduce various definitions from other period scholars all citing qualities of this elusive, apparently perfectly formed and completely sensical unit of expression.

Read pp. 157-159 of Nattiez’ book here

Music has travelled a long way and there are many other expressive sentences within the musical canon that are not quite so easily definable as the classic phrase.


Within the musical score, composers left sorts of artefacts for their performers as to how the music should be phrased, and expressed. Not all composers did this, and depending on the period in history, there were various trends to either put in a great deal of notated advice, or none at all- depending on many different factors. With mass produced editions of music, came editorial markings. In 1925 Schenker wrote an article against this entitled Abolish the phrasing slur. 

It begins with an eloquent point that links nicely to the linguistic origins of the phrase cited in Nattiez above.

“It has never occurred to any poet to Prescribe pitch or intonation, or movement and gesture for the reading of his works. Nor has any playwright dared to interfere with an actor’s right to add his personal nuances to a performance, however much he may have wished to lead him by the nose with remarks on interpretation. … Unfortunately things are different with music. …”

Read Schenker’s article Abolish the phrasing slur here

Markings not to refute: Composer’s instructions

However, contrary to editors providing markings, sometimes the composer has provided the instruction and depending on the type of music, there are occasions when that instruction is invaluable for piecing the music together in a way that creates what was intended. Take the example of the performance instructions at the beginning of George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (The Voice of the Whale) for electric flute, electric piano, and electric cello. Performers are instructed in everything from what they wear, where they stand, how they produce sound on the instruments, and what expressive intent they should communicate.

See an extract from the score of George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae here.

-Don’t get me wrong, the Crumb piece is fantastic and I certainly enjoyed performing it, but the score is something very different from the manuscript of Bach that is full of ink smudges that may actually have been written by his wife or students, and not even put onto the paper by him. There is a great deal of scope between the nothing of some composers, to the suggestions of an editor, to the instructions and hints left behind by a composer. The instructions left by composers such as Liszt were different still, with pedal markings and dynamics that were carefully placed. Executing these becomes more than any simplistic structure or formula of X number of bars leading to Y cadence point.

Task: How does it compare?

Take some writing. It can be from this page; it can be from any page. Read it. How do you read the words? How do they sound in your head? How do you understand them? Now say it aloud. How is that different? Take the same process with a piece of music. Use something you don’t know – it could even be for another instrument. Just so you can digest some new notes and experience how it looks, sounds internally, and feels, and then how it sounds if you sing or play it. Syntactically does it make sense? What’s missing? Maybe nothing? Reflect on the process, and blog about it. 

Phrasing is something that is taught with technical exactness, but in performance when expressive qualities also come into play and seem to add layers to the architectural creation of the notes, dynamics, and harmonies, it all becomes a bit more grey and complex.

Expression is enticing, but is it the opposite of objectivity?

Leonard Bernstein contextualises the concept of expression within a historical time, as was developing in the beginning of the 1900s as he discusses the birth of The Rite of Spring as musicians, artists, and dancers came together to create something that was seen as anti-art, in terms of what came before, but to us is full of expression. For Stravinsky, it is a different type of expression, not the self-expression, but an ‘aesthetic document’ that comments and captures the expression of the world around him. Listen to this 8 minute clip of Bernstein:



Jazz musician Corky Siegel performs with great expressive capability, soloing on the harmonica with a string quartet in Chamber Blues. This is a very different style from what Bernstein was discussing in the clip before. Listen and watch here.


Speaking through sound

This is something that performers do so well. Here we have two very famous performers singing and playing, responding to one another. Listen to the nuances that go beyond the direct lines that might be inferred by the sentences made from the lyrics. How can one note be so expressive? How is the accompaniment made expressive? How do the different parts work together? What can you take from this to borrow for your own music making?


What about what isn’t in the music?

What about silence?

This section is not about the ever-popular John Cage piece 4:33 although if you haven’t heard it, do have a listen to this performance with a full orchestra:

Back to the discussion of rests when embedded in the music, in The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century: Punctuating the Classical “period”, Stephanie Vial provides insight and analysis into the uses of the rest in music. With musical examples from various composers, there are instances of silence that are as unwritten as they are written. She reminds us that:

“We must remind ourselves that punctuation is an essentially visual phenomenon with a history inseparable from written language. Writing served initially as a visual record of the spoken work, but gradually grew from the sixth century onward to convey information directly from the mind’s eye (silent reading for example), bypassing any oral (or aural) expression. As the practice of disseminating information purely through a written medium developed, written tools like punctuation, which could promote comprehension, became increasingly important.”

Read Chapter 4: ‘Written and unwritten rests’ pp.98-120 from Stephanie Vial’s book

Researching expression and listening

This is an example of research that aimed to test musical expression from both the position of the performer and the listener. Various instruments, including voice, flute, violin, and guitars (acoustic and electric) were tested and the variability of the expressive qualities in performance were tested when performers were asked to play set test melodies with different emotions. Listeners were also tested to see if they could correctly identify the performers intention.

Read the article Emotional expression: Between the performer’s intention and the listener’s experience

In his thesis, Ronald Boerson examines various aspects of expression, how we as listeners and performers approach them, and how they interact. Although a musician who works with computers, Boerson unpicks the nuance of expression with human performers from the second page of his thesis (as quoted at the top of this page) and exerts that expression is integral to music instead of an add-on. He is right that we don’t teach expression like we do phrasing, and that often much is assumed. That indescribable aspect of musical expression is what one of my professors liked to call ‘effing the ineffable’, as in the things that just couldn’t be said. There is much that can be explained, but it takes careful thought and communicative skill. Boerson considers aspects of expression including human emotion, communication, gesture, space, and interaction.

Read (at least) the first section of Boerson’s Musical Expression: Exploring a virtual analogy of interactive performance

Now it is time to consider how you communicate all of this to others. That is the real task.


Photo of Hands by Rodin CC licensed

Talking to young people

Sometimes the grammatical details of dissecting a phrase are not necessary to overtly understand from the outset. You can sing it without being able to write it, just like you can speak without having to spell the words. It still benefits people to know how to read and we strive to grow our vocabulary and knowledge. When learning about expression, phrasing, and being musical, one of the most important things is to maintain that connection. Because music does unfold over time, it is that much more important that the golden thread of musical line is maintained. A teacher once painted the picture in my mind of a spiders thread – and sometimes that spider can carry the thread across a large distance, but it does not break. if we let the expressive line break, then we lose the connection with the audience. It reminded me of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon where whatever Harold draws with his crayon, with a single line, comes to life.

Task: Show me

Take a passage of music that you want to be played musically. Show the phrasing, like Harold. Use your arms (and body if comfortable) to trace the phrase. If you use your whole self, the phrase may become a dance. Explore how this can be a teaching tool when students may not directly understand technical language.

Our own expression comes from linking to what we know, understand, dream, and remember.

Whether old or young, it is all a part of how we make music.











Photo CC licensed:

Task: Test it

Take a melody of your choice and record it. Play it simply. Now play different versions. Choose three different qualities/ emotions/ thoughts, whatever you conceive of, and play the phrase these ways. It could be to describe the feeling of the wind in your face on a warm sunny day, or to convey the sadness when someone has to leave, or impatience, or joy. Record them and note what your intentions were. Post them or play them to a friend and see if they can hear any of it. Do you find similarities to the research study? What is the experience like? (now the big one) Could you describe it to someone else so they too could play that way? Begin with describing to yourself what you aim to achieve in some of your own playing.

This is when the teaching comes into it.

Can you relate to that person like Harold imagining with his crayon, or the older person remembering? Can you connect with your student to convey what expressive image you or they would like to share within the music they are learning? Can you guide them to find their own image?

Keep listening and receptive and teaching musicality and expression becomes easier; you may be surprised what musical expression you and your students find and create.

Task: Blog it.

Choose two of the readings suggested above and write… using quotes or annotations to discuss and describe. Reflect on how the readings are meaningful to you as a performer and teacher. Are there things you agree with or things that you have strong opinions against? 

Share your thoughts and your tasks! You can tweet links to your tasks and hashtag or you might want to post on your own site. … everyone is welcome, whether you contribute once or every week.

5 thoughts on “MUS654 Session 8: Phrasing and musicality”

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