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Sometimes my teacher remarks to me that I should shape a phrase rather than just play the notes under a slur "mechanically".

I think I'm improving there somewhat, but I don't really know what I'm doing differently, or what the teacher is doing differently when playing "as a phrase".

My obsessively analytical sense of curiosity is flaring up.

On the "micro" level, what distinguishes a set of notes merely played legato exactly as written, in tempo, from the same notes played "as a phrase"?

I imagine it must be some minute variations in length and/or volume that shape up into a progression, because after all what else is there to change?

But if so, which one is primarily involved in making a phrase - note length or volume, or is it both?

And can the actual modifications from correct-but-mechanical playing of notes be described in detail, numerically?

Perhaps this has even been studied academically.

What makes a phrase a phrase?

  • "Perhaps this has even been studied academically?" Definitely. See cs.cmu.edu/~rbd/papers/Tempo-Change-ICMC-2011.pdf for example. – user19146 Apr 19 '17 at 0:28
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    Having a teacher (well done!), you should spend some time addressing this with them., They will hopefully show you (we can't do that) how different ways of playing change the way a phrase can be perceived. Go on, ask them. – Tim Apr 19 '17 at 12:56
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In simple terms a phrase in music is very similar to a phrase in a spoken language.

Imagine reading a phrase from a book, say, in English. Certain words, and even the syllables within those words, will have more emphasis than others. There may be tiny gaps between some words, the intensity and tone of certain words will differ. They will all probably be spoken in one breath - that's part of what makes them belong to one phrase.

So, it's the articulation from page to ear that is in your hands, so to speak. That phrase can be said in many different ways - it's how the punchline works (or not) in some jokes.

Take a musical phrase, and try to play it in several different ways - all notes at the same volume will often sound amateur - but with subtle variations, you'll come up with some phrasing that you like. Play them to your teacher, and see which one/s are good. There may be more than just the one, that's the same when we speak.

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Trying to make an objective measurement of "phrasing" is hard (if not impossible) because music is not intended to be listened to by laboratory instruments, but by humans.

Therefore, what really matters is how human brains interpret the sounds that reach their ears, which is not the same thing as what those sounds are objectively.

Different humans interpret the same sounds in different ways. One person may think a particular performance is profoundly emotional and "gets to the heart of the music", while another may think it is nothing more than self-indulgent sentimentality.

There is another layer of complication in this process for a performer, because he/she has two potentially conflicting inputs: the sounds he/she intended to create, and those that were actually created. It's quite easy to "listen" to what you intended to play, and block out what you actually played!

One useful technique is to record your playing, listen to it at a later time, for example the next day. That is one way to separate out your intentions about the performance from the performance itself.

Much of what you "hear" in piano playing is an illusion. As an obvious example, it is impossible to play a "smooth" melody at a uniform loudness, because every individual note starts to die away as soon as it is played, and the long and/or high pitched notes die away faster than the short and/or low pitched ones. But "in real life" the audience doesn't notice this, and accepts the illusion - even if long notes actually fade to "silence" before they are nominally ended. For example, listen to the second Chopin prelude here: what sounds like a long slow melody to humans is objectively a series of disjointed individual notes, with long gaps in between them.

(And trying to make an objective analysis of the rhythm and tempo of the first prelude and compare it with you perception is a much bigger challenge than understanding the second prelude!)

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What's in a phrase?

In music theory, a phrase is identified as a unit of rhythmic structure which has a complete musical sense of its own. It is mainly comprises of figures, motifs, and cells, and combining to form melodies, periods and larger sections.

What makes a phrase a phrase?

Its attribute makes it (a phrase) a phrase: having a complete musical sense of its own.


Music can be said to be a language.

Just like as in a normal language English, phrases ought to be complete so as to possibly and truly convey a message (intended idea to be passed on in a conversation).

When talking or writing in English, you surely pay attention to details like punctuations, choice and sequence of words, just as your tone just to mention a few.

Try to pay close attention to your tutors' remark: you should immerse yourself in the music; don't only play. You should feel it.

Remember your body expression as well!

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Concepts like this are very difficult to analyze analytically. It's very easy to miss the forest for the trees. Take it from someone who can tell you where all the trees are, but finding the forest is still difficult for me!

The best example I know of for this sort of concept is the idea of a "word" in linguistics. You'd think that linguists would have an objective set of criteria for what a "word" is, perhaps based on patterns of phonems. Maybe it's the length of the string of phonems or the volume of it (choosing words to align with your question). No. Linguists define a word to be "whatever a native speaker declares a word to be." This is why we have such a variety of words with different levels of expressiveness between languages. When a native Yupik speakers says that tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq is a word, that means it's a word! (That word happens to mean something along the lines of "He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer" if you're curious).

Phrases in music are similar. There's not an objective definition of them, or at least not one that will hold in all cases. Phrases are a unit of music that musicians and composers have found to be important. It's given the name "phrase" because of its similarity to "phrases" in language. We can talk about the cadence of a phrase in music just like we can talk about the cadence of a phrase in language. We can talk about how a phrase has a "laughing" feel to it, or a "somber" feel. We can talk about it "stuttering" or we can talk about it "flowing." The use of the term "phrase" permits us musicians to borrow a whole slew of concepts from language. It proves to be a useful enough concept that its lack of objectivity doesn't prevent us from choosing to use it!

The best thing you can do to understand phrasing is to hang out with musicians! Your teacher is an excellent source for this sort of information. Your teacher can help you understand how to use this concept of phrasing to produce better music.

As a fellow analytical person, my best advice would be a change of viewpoint. You talk about phrases played "correctly but mechanically." What I have found to be the case is that the instant I think I'm playing something "correctly" I stop trying to look for the next level. I feel like I've played it right, so I'm done growing. It's a bad habit I got in. My solution was to stop assuming that what is printed on the white piece of paper in black ink depicts the entire story of what is "correct." It's just a guide to help you seek "correct." Obviously if you play wrong notes, it's likely "not correct," but that doesn't mean that hitting all the right notes is "correct." It's a very small wording tweak, but I found it to be very helpful for forcing me to dig deeper into what things like "phrasing" might actually mean.

It also opens the door for other definitions of correct. Someone might say you're playing the music "correctly" when you feel it in your soul (this is especially popular in jazz). A professional musician might not only need to feel it in their soul, but their audience may need to feel it in their soul as well before it is "correct." All sorts of opportunities open.

In this sense, what the phrase "playing mechanically" does for you is define "correct" to be "correct notes played at the correct time." Moving beyond playing mechanically means setting aside this definition of "correct" and striving after one of the other deeper meanings.

And it helps to have someone teach you where to find these deeper meanings. The term "phrase" is one of the terms which is often used to help point you at them. If your teacher is good, they will use the term "phrase" whenever it will help you in your journey, and they will stop using the term if it ever gets in your way.

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A musical phrase is like a sentence in the English language (or any language for that matter) - it is a musical idea - as my teacher always told me.

It makes complete sense on its own, it feels complete when played or heard.

A phrase may be made up of multiple sets of slurred notes or there could possibly even be multiple phrases under one slur.

'Shaping' of a phrase gives the music more of a human feel (so relating to your point about not being robotic) and brings out the melody (and its phrases) clearly. Playing without shaping is a bit like speaking without pausing at the end of each point/idea/sentence.

  • Can you tell me more about what actually happens on the acoustic level to "give the music more of a human feel etc."? This goes to the core of my question and is still unaddressed by (otherwise excellent and inspiring) answers given so far. If I were to compare recordings of a phrase played with and without shaping in a sound editor, looking at amplitudes and lengths of sounds, what differences would I see, and have those differences been quantitatively studied? – AnatolyVorobey Apr 19 '17 at 12:09
  • Unfortunately I haven't this kind of expertise. However, I am unsure of whether the amplitudes etc would change. It is more to do with where you breathe, take natural pauses, etc, which gives the music more of a human feel. Phrasing also shows through your body language as you are playing (whether you breathe, or use your arms in a flowing motion etc), and so a deeper connection is built between the musician and listener. – Ben Hughes Apr 19 '17 at 13:49
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In my first year of college, my teacher would say "YOU. ARE. PLAYING. AS. IF. YOU. TALKED. LIKE. THIS." Meaning, that I wasn't putting any phrasing into the piece.

As others have said, it's analogous to the way that you change emphasis on syllables when you talk. I'll use the (apropos) word "frustrating" as an example. First, there is an accent on the first syllable: "FRUS-tra-ting." (We'll assume that you're not one of the Brits who says "frus-TRA-ting" as some do.) That doesn't change. But what does change is how strongly you emphasize it. "Yes, I can see what you mean, that's frustrating" might have one emphasis, while "That's SO FRUStrating!" might have a stronger emphasis to convey a greater degree of frustration. Then again, you could say "That's SOOO Frustrating" again conveying a different shade of meaning. That's basically what phrasing is.

It's the same with music. You have the meter, which needs to come out (ONE-two-Three-four ONE-two-Three-four), and you also have subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) variations in volume and duration (yes, it is both) that are a part of phrasing.

If you want to study phrasing, have a look at Chopin's Prelude No. 7, the "easy" one. Start with Argerich's version in the link that alephzero has posted above (it's at about 7:40). Then, go in and look at some others. There are several that have the music running along with them, and you can look at the phrase markings (the curvy lines over groups of notes) to get some idea of Chopin's intent.

This very simple piece is often thought of as one of the hardest to perform, simply because people try so hard to "phrase" it that they wind up overcomplicating things to the point of ridiculousness. You should find several examples of this. (Some of the performances remind me of the overemphasized gestures that actors were fond of making in the silent movies, that seem so silly now.) You can use Argerich's verson as a standard of clean, simple phrasing for comparison. Since you're the analyzing type, look at the slight variations in volume, the slight variations in legato, and the slight variations in meter that she uses. And, look at how these things are overdone in versions that seem over the top to you.

And then keep in mind that phrasing is ultimately intuitive. Just as there's a natural way to talk, there's a natural way to sing, and by extension to play an instrument. If you have the idea that a "good speech" applies all the best techniques of public speaking, and work on the delivery of every phrase, all the while being nervous about whether you really have anything to say, your speech will sound contrived and artificial no matter how profound the content. So it is with musical phrasing. If you try to phrase a piece by analyzing shadings, dynamics, articulation and so on, while still being nervous about sharing your heart with the world, then no matter how good your analysis is, and how well you execute it, it will still come across as artificial and contrived.

Let the music be a means to share your heart with the world, and phrasing will take care of itself. It's a natural thing.

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I think your teacher doesn't know what S/He is talking about and is only regurgitating what S/He learned from a teacher who didn't know what they were talking about.

S/He is probably talking about one of three things: 1) As in speaking and singing, we can phrase our playing. Take this sentence and accent the capitalized words:
_I_ want to kiss you.
I WANT to kiss you.
I want to KISS you.
I want to kiss YOU.
The accent changes the meaning of the sentence. By using dynamics you can change how your phrase sounds. A bad rule of thumb, if the notes go up, you get louder and if they go down . . .

2) Inégal or Entasis. This is the tensioning or a give and take in playing. Instead of playing everything metronomically perfect, you make some notes a little longer but then also make a few shorter. A bad analogy would be like swinging on a HUGE tire swing. That moment you hit the top of the arc on the other side, you almost come to a stop as the tire falls backward. It is playing off the expected beat.

3) S/he could mean technically since you or she used the words "shape a phrase." In playing, there are movements of the hand such as in and out, up and down, forward shifting, lateral arm movement, rotation, etcetera. Applied individually, each of these movements can improve technical flaws in someones playing. When you put them all together, they form a "shape" and make playing effortless. Analogy time - Pretend you are writing on a chalk board and you are going to trace a large square. You use certain muscles to draw a line up, other muscles to draw a line to the right, other muscles to draw a line down, other muscles to draw left. Individually you are using four different groups of muscles to draw each line and if you did this repetitively it would become taxing or you would experience fatigue. Now draw a large circle over the square using your whole arm and notice that the circle is effortless and you are not isolating muscles but they are all working and resting together. That is shaping on a technical level.

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