I have gotten several comments on my scores saying that they would be better if I had regular or at least even numbered phrase lengths. But what is the point of say sticking to 8 bar phrases for a composition? There are plenty of phrases which are an odd number of measures long. You don't have to look any further than Beethoven's 5th symphony to find a phrase like that. enter image description here

This is the opening phrase of Beethoven's 5th. As you can see, it is 5 measures long. It also sounds like a question and answer in octaves, with the answer still being incomplete until the second phrase enters and the motif is developed. So you could say this phrase is a period within a sentence that is itself part of a theme. I have tried sticking to 8 bar phrases and I find that because the last 2 measures of an 8 bar phrase are expected to be cadential, I find that my creativity as a composer goes down and I rely more on modulation than on rhythm or anything else that is important other than the notes themselves when I use regular phrase lengths. Is it really worth it if sticking to 8 bar phrases means my creativity lowers?

And even if it didn't have to do with my creativity, is there really a point to sticking to even numbered or regular phrase lengths when you could easily get the essence of an even numbered length phrase in an odd numbered length phrase by simply shortening the cadential part of the phrase?

  • I've realized something about feedback on creative works: When someone mentions some random thing they think you should do differently, all that means is that they didn't love what you wrote and they are trying to come up with some reason why they didn't love it. The real reason is they just didn't love it. The reason they say is just some random rationalization. If they loved it, they wouldn't have said anything random about what you should do differently. All you can take away from feedback like this is, they just didn't love it. Mar 1, 2019 at 4:23
  • So, getting feedback saying that I should use regular or even numbered phrase lengths has nothing to do with the phrasing itself and that kind of feedback I should just ignore and not try to change my music to fit the feedback?
    – Caters
    Mar 1, 2019 at 4:27
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    Beethoven 5 is a poor example: here it's stating a motif, which will be used extensively. It's hardly a tune in itself, just a statement, and the '5 bars' are there to underline the last note, not really to make it 5 bars long, as actually, with fermata, it's nearer 6. Which pretty well makes it even...
    – Tim
    Mar 1, 2019 at 7:18
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    If the comments come from experienced person whose skills as composer you admire then it might make sense to assume, that this is at least a good advice on how to improve that particular piece. No rule is categorical but in a school situation if you do go outside of some guidelines it'd better be for a good reason
    – Jarek.D
    Mar 1, 2019 at 12:07
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    I agree with Tim that Beethoven's 5th is a poor example, but for a different reason. It's mainly in the relaxed segments that the phrasing is uneven. Most of the time it sticks to 4-bar phrasing.
    – ScottM
    Mar 14, 2019 at 19:00

6 Answers 6


Yes, that Beethoven phrase you included is technically 5 bars, but the binary nature of it is so very clear. There are two, two-bar segments. Given the fermatas, the 5th bar seems clear enough an explicitly written emphasis to hold the last note a long time. I view it as 2+2+1 not 2+3. The regularity and symmetry then come from the 2+2 aspect and - in my view - the extra +1 doesn't change that.

Having said that, it sounds like someone is telling you to make everything divisible by 2, and my guess is they are telling you that is classical style.

Well, sort of 'yes'. Certainly lots and lots of classical music is in regular, even numbered phrases. But, could form genres have any relevance? (Hint: yes, the particular form matters.)

A classical minuet very commonly is phrased with even numbers of bars. But, a sonata can exhibit lots of different phrase lengths.

You may be interested to read this chapter from a classical era theorist named Riepel. In it various phrase lengths are discussed and given the names: zweyer, dreyer, and vierer, which respectively are 2, 3, and 4 bars in length. Riepel is super-sensitive to the idea that minuet phrases should be even, but says other phrase lengths are appropriate in a sonata.

  • Regular phrases are a feature that the minuet shares with most dance forms. I would view the opening of the Fifth rather as an augmented statement of the one-bar motive. It is out of time (note the fermatas), with the extra measure conveying that the last note should be longer than the fourth. This seems much more about rhetoric than rhythmic proportion or balance.
    – phoog
    Apr 14, 2019 at 15:57

No, there's no automatic virtue in using regular phrase lengths.

Maybe the structure of your music works well, maybe it doesn't. We'd have to see some of it.


You can find music with predictable phrase lengths and music with quite the opposite. For example, the Chopin scherzos are very much in four-bar phrases, while in many works by Brahms the phrasing is very subtle. In both cases there are celebrated and "successful" works.

There is a tendency toward regularity of phrase length. This can be a larger-scale form of rhythm: instead of (or in addition to) feeling a regular pulse of beats at a relatively short time scale, we feel a regular pulse of phrases at a relatively long time scale. This regularity might become monotonous without variation. On the other hand, if every phrase is a different length, then a listener sensitive to this kind of rhythm might feel the music is disorderly or confusing. Those are the two extremes. In between, you have the vast majority of music which tends toward regularity but with some freedom.

Consider a forte in a passage mostly piano, or a highly chromatic chord in an otherwise harmonically sterile passage. So with phrasing: if you allow a tendency toward regular phrase lengths, then diverging with occasional phrases of different lengths becomes an expressive device that is unavailable if phrase length cannot be predicted.

All these comments consider the general case rather than specific cases. As for your specific piece, if it works it works.


Much depends on the point of the music. Dance music needs regularity as dancers use patterns that span several measures. Likewise, as noted in an other answer, the rather common four-measure phrase acts more like a unit rather than separate measures. The structure over many measures tends to be divided into groups of four-measure phrases.


Possibly the same reasoning behind our preference for counting 4 in a bar? It literally 'evens things up', and has a more satisfying feel to it. 5/4 time is used in a few t.v. themes - Mission Impossible is one - as it gives a feeling of suspense. If that's what you want for your music, that sort of concept works well. For music that you'd rather have the listener calm and enjoying the tranquility, that just won't work as well as 4 or 6.

Stretch it all out into stanzas and phrases, the same principal often applies.


Regular phrase structures are regular for a reason. You are going to have to resort to unusual chord progressions if you use odd phrases, most chord progression work off 4 steps forward, 3 steps back or one step forward. Thismeans you are often working off 4 steps making 8 bars an easy and effective way to start and end on the tonic.

Although odd phrases and unusual chord progressions are not impossible I have to wonder why you would want to do that. They add nothing to the musicality of your piece and complicate your compisition for no good reason.

  • But sticking to regular phrase lengths really limits what I can do. For example, if I were to do 8 bar phrasing, and modulate from C to Cm, this is what would be expected: Bar 8: G7 -> C Bar 9: Cm Without this limitation of regular phrasing, I can easily end a phrase on the parallel minor without using the dominant there and instead just directly go from 1 tonic chord to the next. And I actually find it easier to compose when I don't limit myself to regular phrasing.
    – Caters
    Mar 14, 2019 at 23:47

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