I recently submitted a question about a phrase that was neither a sentence nor a period but I still haven't figured out one thing: are all musical phrases either a period or a sentence? If there are other forms, what are they?

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    I'll let others elaborate, but "phrase" can just mean "a chunk of music that makes sense to talk about as a single entity." It's not really rigidly defined, and it's kind of in the eye of the beholder. If I call something a phrase it means I recognize the stuff within it as belonging together, having a bit of a stopping point, and being separate from other material around it. Beyond that, it could be anything! 7 bars, 11, 3, having internal symmetry or none. Commented Jun 24 at 12:43
  • There's certainly pieces which are the William Faulkner of music. Commented Jun 24 at 13:30
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    For questions like this, I tend to recommend you go listen to Messaien's Quatuor pour le fin du temps (with the score if you read music) - strange enough to dispel just about every theoretical conception you might have, but not strange enough to be completely incomprehensible. Commented Jun 26 at 0:33

1 Answer 1


I think the thing you overlook is the formal theory you are asking about is focused on classical style. Sentence has a fairly specific meaning within that context. But it does not necessarily apply to all styles of music.

If you take a non-Classical work, like Debussy's Syrinx, it certainly is constructed of phrases. But I would not use a book like William Caplin's Classical Form analyze its structure. Some of that theory may apply, but it's really meant to illuminate a different style of music.

Do all musical phrases have a structured form?

I'll go out on a limb and say "yes." Some people say true randomness isn't possible. Pattern and structure may not be obvious in some cases, but it will can be found somewhere.

Are all musical phrases period or sentences?

No. Suffice to say not all musical phrases are Classical.

If there are other forms what are they?

Schoenberg and Caplin provide enough formal theory terminology.

Personally, I just use, in increasing sizes:

  • motif,
  • measure,
  • segment,
  • phrase,
  • section, and
  • movement.

You can also think of those in terms of durations:

  • beat,
  • enough beats for a measure,
  • a few measures,
  • all the measures until a proper cadence,
  • enough phrases to get to a double bar repeat,
  • everything up to the final double bar.

As long is the music is metrical those durations are pretty straight forward. I don't really care what exact terminology is used to labels those durations.

If the music is not metrical, if it isn't Classical tonal style, "pause" can be used in lieu of "cadence", and the length of a breath can gauge approximate length of a "segment" or "phrase."

Within those various levels of duration you want to take note of what repetition with or without variation occurs. Also note what musical elements are repeated: melodic, harmonic, rhythms, textures, etc.

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