Phrases: Musical “Sentences”

Volume 12, No. 3  (March 2017)

Phrasing in music is what rounds out musical thoughts, and enhances the beauty, balance and symmetry of the music.


In nature, we find beauty, balance and symmetry. And beautiful objects are often not square, but rather curved and rounded off:


In art, beauty, balance and symmetry are also important elements::


In English, sentences are rounded off with tonal inflections (ending down or up pitch-wise).

Declarative statements (facts) generally end down:

Interrogative statements (questions end up:


In poetry, sentences/lines are often rounded off:


(Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)




In music, phrases are like musical “sentences,” complete thoughts that are rounded out musically (and usually separated by breaths when it involves wind instruments or voices).

Music phrasing has elements of tension and release, motion and rest. In playing or singing a musical phrase, there is usually an artful rounding off of the phrase in a way that makes it obvious (and satisfying) that a musical juncture has been reached.There is normally a subtle push forward towards the middle of the phrase and a corresponding holding back towards the end of the phrase, usually accompanied analogously by a slight increase in volume followed by a decrease in volume. All of these are important balancing factors that add to the sense of completing a “thought.”

Beauty, balance and symmetry are important elements of all art. Music for worship is more than an art, but also not less. Poetic texts proclaiming God’s truth are set musically to add another level of expression, beauty and balance that reflects and honors the Creator.


(“His Robes for Mine,” choral anthem; text by Chris Anderson; music by Greg Habegger;
arranged by Dan Forrest, Sound Forth #279249)

The end of a phrase in choral singing often, though not always, coincides with a period, semicolon or exclamation point (see above example) in the text being sung (sometimes a comma). But sometimes the director needs to make compromises in order to accommodate the musical line to the textual thought or vice versa.

Another key factor often overlooked by choral singers is that the phrase often does not turn on the highest note of the phrase, but has a different trajectory musically and textually. There is a natural tendency for singers to head towards the highest pitch in a line and make it the loudest; this must be resisted by the singer (and insisted against by the director!); singers should be taught to consciously sing through the highest pitch to the true destination of the musical line.

In instrumental, vocal and choral singing alike, it is important to be sensitive to the need to round off, or taper, the ends of musical phrases. This gives  a sense of completion, balance and beauty to a musical and textual thought. Just as in speaking, we don’t give every word equal weight; every effective spoken line has direction, balance, and ebb and flow. So too in expressing musical thoughts.

Biblical truths sung beautifully and artfully give even greater impact to the message of those words!

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