Is a musical phrase the same as a spoken phrase?

We teach the concept of a musical phrase by comparing it to a spoken phrase.

However, in order for students to understand phrasing best, it is necessary to point out to them the similarity and the difference between a musical and a spoken phrase.
  • Similarity: The similarity between the two is in the space between the phrases.

    The same way we breathe in between spoken sentences, we need to breathe in between musical phrases as well. Punctuation and cadences relate in a direct way.

  • Difference: The difference between a musical and a spoken phrase is in the actual shape of a phrase.

    The inflection of a musical phrase doesn't change from a country to the next, while the inflection of a spoken phrase clearly changes from a country to the next.

    For example, French speakers emphasize the very end of a phrase, and English speakers emphasize words according to their own accentuation, and neither translates into the shaping of a musical phrase.  
While the space between phrases can be taught through the comparison to spoken phrases, the inside of a musical phrase has its own inner organization, which we need to spell out clearly to our students.


  1. The differences need not be emphasized as much. When playing vocal music it is very important to understand the inflections of the language because it affects how the music is played. It is helpful to be aware of this even when playing music without words. And playing recitatives shows how music can very much be related to the inflection of words.

  2. Christine, I absolutely agree with you for vocal music, and I realize I didn't make it clear that I intended this post to be about instrumental music.

    As I am saying in the post, the inner accentuation of a musical phrase is completely different from speech.

    For example, a musical phrase will have one climax, while English phrases will have a few emphasizes of the same strength in one phrase.

    A musical phrase has its climax most often placed around its third fourth, and not on the last note like it would be if we imitated it from a French sentence.

    To use the organization of emphasis of a spoken phrase from any language into a musical phrase wouldn't be musical.


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