I'm a contra dancer who would like to get better at hearing the phrasing and perhaps someday calling dancing. Hearing the phrasing is important to both skills.

Contra dancing is explained here.


Here's the relevant section that describes the phrasing.

Typical contra dance choreography comprises four parts, each 16 counts (8 measures) long. The parts are called A1, A2, B1 and B2. This nomenclature stems from the music: Most contra dance tunes (as written) have two parts (A and B), each 8 measures long, and each fitting one part of the dance. The A and B parts are each played twice in a row, hence, A1, A2, B1, B2. While the same music is generally played in, for example, parts A1 and A2, distinct choreography is followed in those parts. Thus, a contra dance is typically 64 counts, and goes with a 32 measure tune.

When I dance Contra I have no trouble hearing or counting the beat in most cases but knowing when one phrase ends is very difficult for me. If there's a long swing I will sometimes have a feel for when the 16 beats will end but usually not.

Is there a systematic way to learn to hear phrasing? I've talked to a few musical people who say that they can hear the phrasing but that is SO not helpful! I'm taking voice lessons and my teacher believes that the skill of hearing pitch will help me to hear phrasing. I don't know about that.

  • I'll leave this as a comment because it doesn't answer the question as asked - but in my experience professional dancers don't bother much with the music, apart from counting. Learn to count the beats while your mind engaged on something else, and the problem goes away. Some of the stories of how orchestral players pass the time while counting 273 bars rest without skipping a beat are legendary... – user19146 Nov 30 '16 at 7:57

A musical phrase is analogous to a sentence. This is easier to see if you use a song with words. Let's take a simple tune as an example:

Hark the Herald (no words)

It's not that easy to see the phrasing, is it? What if I said the words were:

Hark the herald-angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled

Can you see the phrases now? There are four of them, and each is two bars long:

Hark the Herald (with words)

Of course, many tunes do not have words. But the concept still applies. Think of the melody telling a story. When you speak, you don't just drone on; there are natural pauses, and emphasis. It's the same with a melody. Of course, if the storyteller (or melody) is bad, this is not strictly true, but I think it will generalise to most music you will encounter.

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  • Very similar to what endorph is saying as far as thinking of the phrase like English sentences. Look at the shape of the notes of the top line. It starts low then goes high and comes down a little like an arc, but it ends higher then it started sort of like a question. The second line is an arc like the first line but then ends where it started, like a statement. In terms of rhythm, the last note of each line ends with a white note which is longer then the other notes. This would be a rhythmic indication of the end of a phrase. – jomki Nov 30 '16 at 2:55

There are many elements that go into recognizing a musical phrase. Most of them can be systematically learned by systematically learning music. If the type of music that is used in contra dance has regular phrases then you can try just counting the phrases while listening to the music. If you do this enough you may begin to intuitively recognize the phrases.

If you would like to delve deeper into the music there a few main concepts to look into, such as melody, rhythm, and harmony. Each can be broken down into parts as well. You can learn about one part and gain some insight, but the more you learn the more you will "hear" the phrases.

Melody can be broken down to pitch and rhythm. You can study musical notes to recognize how the pitch moves and how the notes relate to each other. I imagine your vocal teacher was suggesting learning how pitches relate to each other rather than trying to learn pitch recognition. A good method for this is solfege (the good old "do re mi"). In general, the pitch of a melody will start on or around the main notes of the song (the tonic key) and end a phrase either on the note farthest away (in a question type of ending) or it will end on notes similar to the beginning.

The rhythm for the end of a phrase is usually a longer note indicate the end of the phrase, like breathing at the end of a sentence.

Harmony refers to the chords of the music. The chords are related to each other in a similar way that notes are related to each, and they also have a rhythm as well. Chords pass by regularly and usually start on the home chord, like the melody does, and then ends in a similar way with either a question or return to home. At the end of a question phrase the chords sometimes keep moving rhythmically to lead into the next phrase. Usually when a phrase returns home the chord rhythm is longer like a resting place.

Hopefully this helps. I feel like I'm rambling on a bit. It's hard to find a balance of speaking in general layman' terms while referring to specific musical elements. Basically, yes there are ways to study musical phrases.

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  • You've given me something to think about and to eventually study. Music isn't random. There are some attributes of phrases that I can learn to hear. Thank you! Can you comment on endorph's answer how you would know that one phrase ended and the other started in his example? – Sol Nov 30 '16 at 0:48

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