What is musical phrasing?

As pianists, we are often preoccupied with playing the correct notes dictated within the score, especially as the music we play becomes more and more technical and complicated. 

How we play those notes and the musical decisions we make not only impacts the overall sound of the piece but is also how we express ourselves creatively as pianists. 

These phrasing decisions are not only how we interpret the music but how we communicate an emotional message to the audience. 

Phrasing music can take many forms: it can be how strict we are with the tempo, how we use rubato, articulation, dynamics, and so much more. 

We often use phrasing to provide the following three musical elements: 

  • Clarify what’s in the music 
  • Emphasize important passages, notes, or ideas within the music 
  • Direct where the music is going

Are we moving forward, backward, or staying static within the musical journey of the piece? 

Nearly all of the greatest composers of piano music also composed vocal music.  Considering the voice is our most natural instrument, studying the contours of vocal phrasing can provide us with vital information on how to shape lines at the piano.  

Singing a phrase gives suggestions on how you may want to phrase a passage or melody line on the piano in a way that sounds natural.  Where do you sing the loudest? The quietest? Where do you take a pause for breath? Do you hold a certain note longer than another? 

These are all ideas that can be brought to the piano when thinking about how to phrase a piece of music. 

Music is often described as a language.  When looking at phrasing this becomes apparent as to why.  Phrasing is how we play smaller passages of material within larger forms – it’s akin to grammatical structures in language. 

The way we phrase music depends on the era the composer lived and the style of the piece.  We should ask ourselves what a composer’s intention was in composing the piece, and what instrument they were writing for.  

Do the sections repeat or not? What do the repeats mean? Is the piece a journey from point A to B, or is it more circular in form?  Are certain melodies evocative of the human voice?  Are other instruments being imitated?  As we answer these questions and more, we’ll develop more conviction in how to phrase at the piano. 

Also similar to language, you can say the same thing a variety of different ways. The way you say something can even change the meaning or how it is perceived. You can say something with a tone that is happy, angry, sarcastic, surprised, or however really.  

People pick up on this and they do similarly with music, the audience can read the tone of what’s being played.

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