Phrase (music)

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A phrase ( Greek φράση phráse “the sentence”, “expression”, “the turn”) is a sequence of tones in musical composition that is a small unit of meaning and structure that is often composed of several motifs . Several phrases in turn can form a so-called period , a sentence or a melody .


The phrase as a tone group is derived from a secondary form (today the main form) of the ancient Greek word φράσις “the way of speaking”, the “expression” and is related to the concept of the phrase from linguistics . As there, it denotes a closed figure (ie a figure which 'closes' in some way, i.e. contains a final signal), but which is mostly part of a larger (musical) structure. In English and French music terminology, the 'phrase' is roughly the musical equivalent of the grammatical " sentence ". On the other hand, the term sentence in German formal theory means a different context, namely the phrase overarching context (English: 'movement', French: 'mouvement').


According to an ancient and simple definition, a phrase consists of as much music as can be sung in one breath.

“A term adopted from linguistic syntax and used for short musical units of various lengths; a phrase is generally regarded as longer than a motif but shorter than a period. "

"A term that was adopted from linguistics and is used for short musical units of different lengths: a phrase is usually longer than a motif, but shorter than a period."

- The New Grove

Stein, 1962:Phrase is one of the most contradicting terms in music: aside from the fact that it can be used for two-measure as well as eight-measure (or even larger) units, it is often incorrectly used to subdivide multiple or individual phrases to call."

Misunderstandings can be avoided here if one recognizes that more than one phrase can form a superordinate phrase shape as partial phrases (e.g. in such a way that a first [partial] phrase functions as its first half and a second as its second half ). So musical phrases are something multidimensional. The musical dimensions of 1.) the rhythm of use, 2.) the functional rhythm (also: 'cadence rhythm') and 3.) the rhythmic chord steps are able to 'close' (cadence), that is, according to Hugo Riemann, through 'endings lengthening' (after a phase the changeability remain unchanged) to 'close' should mean: to convey a final signal.

See also