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I understand that the concept of "phrase" is not always very well defined, and that there contrasting "intuitive" and "analytical" ways of thinking about music phrases and phrasing, per Wikipedia.

My question is what are common analytic techniques for identifying phrases in music, based on the notes in a score as opposed to an audio recording of a performance?

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When I'm looking for phrasing, I like to think of it as "musical resting places." It's really tied to performance, so always bear in mind whether it would sound right if you played a phrase there.

Usually phrases are pretty evident, so this answer is focused on times when they aren't. Often, if you can't see the phrases clearly, there's more than one possible way to do it.

What kind of music are you looking at?

If you're looking at rock music, phrases are going to be generally of approximately equal length and cued by rhythmic changes. Most vocal art music will have a mix of phrase lengths and can be divided based on melody contour and breath marks. Be aware of how the style you're looking at is normally phrased.

I am a percussionist, so I'm often playing avant-garde music where phrases are hard to spot, but important to making sense of the sound.

Types of Resting Places

This is often determined by the genre of music, but generally it will be some combination of these factors. Each individually is not usually enough to delimit a phrase, but if you see two or three, it's a good bet.

Rhythm is often a cue of the position within a phrase. Frequently a rhythmic motif will occur in similar locations in a phrase. Sustained pitches in the melody voice are often a resting place.

Harmony, generally cadences or other strong progressions, can also be a signal. A change in the overall harmonic motion can also signal you've started a new phrase. If you've been progressing I-IV-V-vi and find yourself playing IV-ii-V-I, you might have had a new phrase. As Dom pointed out, the harmonic rhythm is often an indicator as well.

Melody can also signal a phrase. In many types of music, phrases fall from a high point. When you leap back up, it's probably a new phrase.

Text is an indicator in a lot of music. It seems simple but sometimes it's easy to overlook. Generally well-set music will follow the punctuation of any text.

Notation. I often find that some of the phrases are marked but not all of them, especially in transcriptions of folk music. Look for patterns similar to the ones that are marked.

Elided/Overlapping Phrases

In polyphonic music, be aware that it's common to have overlapping phrases between the voices. These are harder to spot and often subject to interpretation.

In any case, remember that music is to be heard and performed* and that phrasing is based on how your brain perceives the sound of the music. The composer was hearing a sound, and you're trying to recreate their thoughts. Whenever I try to mark phrases academically, I generally end up with at least some erroneous results.

*I don't know of phrasing in danger music. But in that case it's ok to analyze without trying to hear it.

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A phrase is like a musical sentence. Like a typical sentence there's a pause that signifies the end of a sentance that in a typical sentence is denoted by a period and in music is marked by a cadence. The Wikipedia article you link even states:

In common practice phrases are often four bars or measures long culminating in a more or less definite cadence.

Let's just take a look at a simple example:

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In Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the half notes mark all the where cadences occur as that is where the melody rests. If you were to sing it, you would take a quick breath at every half note in the melody there. It's where the music takes a pause thus denotes the end of a phrase and the beginning of a new one.

This is not to say every longer duration note is the end of a phrase, but they are typically a good indicator of where they are.

Another thing to notice is at the end of measure 4, and 12 the bass notes(harmonic rhythm) speed up which is another indicator that you are at the cadence and at the end of a phrase.

  • I think your example would be more compelling if you add a second one with phrasing marks added, then readers will naturally look to the text in between to see how it is done. – luser droog May 18 '15 at 7:37
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My question is what are common analytic techniques for identifying phrases in music, based on the notes in a score as opposed to an audio recording of a performance?

A few points.

A phrase ends with a cadence. A cadence is indicated with some sort of point of rest. This is not always done with actual rests but sometimes with longer notes. Phrases are usually a set number bars. Four or eight bars phrases are common practice.

You can think of phrases as musical sentences. You say a sentence and then usually you say another one with different words in but still with the same subject.

In this analogy of musical sentences you can consider cadences full stops and just like a full stop indicates the ending of a sentence so does a cadence indicate the ending of a phrase.

  • This is pretty much the exact same response as my answer. – Dom May 16 '15 at 17:22
  • Sorry DOm I don't read the other answer when writing my own. – Neil Meyer May 16 '15 at 17:28

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