From Phrase to Phrasing

A Classical Perspective

Chapter 6 – A not so Classical view

The previous chapters contain the research as I envisaged it at the beginning of this project. But gradually I have come to recognize the need to address topics not mentioned in the sources. With the help of modern authors I would like to add some observations that made me look at phrases in a different way.

Language in music, music in language

Initially I had thought to use the parallel between language and music as a stepping stone for this paper, till someone alerted me to T. W. Adorno’s essay ‘Music and Language: A Fragment’.65Theodor Adorno, ‘Music and Language: A Fragment’, in Quasi Una Fantasia, Essays on Modern Music, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London, New York, 1956). The first paragraph already states ‘Anyone who takes music for a language will be misled’ and it made me give up my original design. I could of course sidestep the issue by arguing that the sources for my research take the relation between music and language as axiomatic, but that feels too easy.66Koch, Versuch einer Anleitung zur Komposition, ii, 342.

Music and language are not identical but resemble each other. Both are ‘temporal sequences of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds’ (Adorno). These sounds refer to something, they express, they communicate. But language references things outside the language itself. Words are coded information for something else. Language is (after Helmuth Plessner) double-layered: the layer of sound can be separated from the layer of meaning, that is why one language can be translated into an other. Music only references itself, meaningful units are created anew in every composition. It is therefore singe-layered; it still has meaning of course but the meaning is of a different order–‘you could not even order a pizza with it’.67Andreas Luckner, ‘Andreas Luckner: Musik - Sprache - Rhythmus’, 2007, 42 <> [accessed 20 January 2017].

This interferes with the traditional concept of punctuation. Simplified: punctuation in language uses meaning to create units, punctuation in music uses units to create meaning. Cadences operate on the level of music to indicate punctuation, punctuation in a text acts on a higher level than the words.

But this fundamental difference does not necessarily prohibit further discussion. Language conveys more than just information. In poetry, for instance, we find an emphasis on the ‘musical’ qualities of language: sound patterns, rhythm and a highly formalised structure in verse lines. These can rightly be called musical because they do not carry ‘coded’ meaning and their frame of reference stays within the single layer of sound. Rhyme creates a structure independent from grammar or meaning. Admittedly this is only a minor part of punctuation (we cannot determine the amount of closure) but when Riepel states that cadences of phrase-ends ‘rhyme’ with each other, he has an interesting point.68Joseph Riepel, Anfangsgründe zur musicalischen Setzkunst: Grundregeln zur Tonordnung insgemein, 7 vols (1755), ii, 43.

Also syntax differs fundamentally between language and music. According to Manfred Bierwisch: musical syntax is time dependent, and language syntax is dependent on conventions.69Manfred Bierwisch, ‘Musik und Sprache : überlegungen zu ihrer Struktur und Funktionsweise’, 74 <> [accessed 20 January 2017]. Therefore repeating something in speech does not really impart more information; in music repeating a motif creates the musical form itself. Again this only holds true if language would convey only information. In poetry rhythm creates patterns in the metrical feet, length of phrases, caesuras and enjambments; like in music these patterns give shape to time and create their own ‘meaning’. Many rhetorical figures use repetition to make the message come across more strongly; in that sense repetition does create more information about character, build-up, tension, release, etc.

Moreover, in a highly stylised tonal music like the Classical, chords start acting like recurring ciphers, reappearing in identical functions, sequences, and stock melodic figures.70Adorno, ‘Music and Language: A Fragment’, 2. Tonality can at least claim a form of conventional syntax.

A recent study by Kunert et al. (2016) demonstrates that the grammatical structure of sentences (as opposed to their meaning) and harmonic sequences (as a determinant of tonality and musical phrase) are processed by the same part of the brain–thus proving that, specifically, syntax processing in language and music originate in the same part of the brain..71Richard Kunert, Roel M. Willems and Peter Hagoort, ‘Language Influences Music Harmony Perception: Effects of Shared Syntactic Integration Resources beyond Attention’, Royal Society Open Science, 3/2 (2016), 150685.

Bicolon, tricolon

Without denying the fundamental difference between language and music, there are still good reasons to make and use parallels between language and music, especially in Classical style. Rhetorical figures are a case in point, like the bicolon and tricolon.

The bi- and tricolon are constructed from two or three parts that are more or less equal in structure, length, and rhythm. In short form they are popular because they are catchy:

‘I came; I saw; I conquered’ (Julius Ceasar, tricolon)

In more elaborate form they are successful by emphasizing a point in a memorable and pithy way:

‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ (John F. Kennedy, bicolon)

These powerful devices can work in language and music alike because they have to do with style, order and delivery rather than content; they are mainly based on correspondence in length, sound/rhyme, and rhythm.

A musical equivalent of the bicolon would be a bipartite structure like question-answer, or open-close; of the tricolon it would be a tripartite structure like the bar-form. I will use bi- and tricolon for these musical structures as well.

Structuring in twos and threes is of course nothing new, but why are these figures so powerful? As rhetorical figures they are designed to have an effect. The symmetrical structure of the bicolon makes the second part easier to process by the created expectation. As Thomas S. Kane puts it, ‘Balance and parallelism do not communicate meaning by themselves, but balanced and parallel constructions do reinforce and enrich meaning’.72Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing (1994). Dividing things into two is a powerful device because the brain will try to find a connection, a simile, an opposite (basically any pattern) because two suggests a relationship.

If two sets up a pattern, then a third element can confirm or break that direction. The tricolon is basically a list, a simplification of complexity; opposed to a list of four or more elements, three has a sense of completeness. Churchill said he had ‘nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ but four doesn’t work and everybody remembers the line as in the tricolon ‘blood, sweat and tears’.73Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence, Icon Books Ltd, 2013, 87. As Mark Forsyth demonstrates, tricolons often sound especially good when the third element is longer than the preceding two, like in ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’.74Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence, Icon Books Ltd, 2013, 85. You could argue the specific order in meaning makes the last element more noticeable (from general to specific75Danyal Freeman, ‘Tricolon’, Vernacular Discourse <> [accessed 11 December 2016].) but for the musical ear the third element stands out because it provides a place of landing for the direction the previous elements have taken.

Bi- and tricolons create shapes for phrasing as well. If you speak a bicolon aloud it has a natural up-down intonation pattern. The tricolon has a natural up-up-down pattern with the ups raising the expectation that the down confirms. We are back where we started: bicolons, which through parallelism confirm expectation; and tricolons, by reaching completion of a list, create repose-moments.

In a way the bicolon stands at the basis of the antecedent-consequent form. Adding a contrasting idea to each ‘colon’ brings us close to a modern definition of period, as found with Schoenberg and others. (I write modern definition because like the 1 + 1 + 2 construction it is not really described as such in the sources though obviously present in a lot of Classical music.)


Figure 85: Period after Caplin: Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K.525, mov. 2.

This example by William E. Caplin.76William E. Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, New Ed edition (New York; Oxford, 2000), 12. is like a bicolon in which each part has been qualified like in the famous:

Morning has broken, like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.77From the song ‘Morning is broken’, lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon, made popular by Cat Stevens.

Balance and parallelism give bicolons a more static nature; in musicthey are often also perceived like that.

Similarly the tricolon can be said to be at heart of the modern sentence. The archetypical example is by Beethoven, Piano Sonata op.2,1, mov.1: 78Caplin, Classical Form, 10.


Figure 86: Sentence after Caplin: Beethoven, Piano Sonata op.2,1, mov.1.

Two shorter statements culminating in a longer (and stronger) third one make it a tricolon, in this case the third part is a tricolon in itself (added indication in Caplin’s example by me). Tricolons have a more developing nature since they are based on a list reaching completion, and in music they are perceived likewise.

Caplin makes many more interesting observations and goes on delving into hybrid types and exceptions. Personally I find the bi- and tricolon sometimes more helpful in their fundamental simplicity because they feel related to the way I hear and play music; as a string of thoughts that leads to something bigger (additive), rather than a bigger construction that gets divided in smaller parts (divisive). Although there is of course the bigger idea we want to get across, the art of rhetoric is in shaping our phrases in such a way that, step-by-step, we convince our audience. In that sense it adds meaning with every phrase and that idea appeals to me as a performer.

Development in a phrase

If repose-moments determine the end of a phrase, it implies that, when listening to music we only construct in hindsight how a phrase goes. Or as A. Luckner puts it, ‘Musical form constitutes itself in essence only in the fading away of sound, it can only exist where and if, the anticipation of “Gestalt” finishes.’79Andreas Luckner, ‘Zur Philosophie des Rhythmus (Abstract)’, Lebenswelt und Wissenschaft <> [accessed 20 January 2017]. Anticipation is the keyword: if we can shape anticipation, we can convey a sense of order even before a phrase actually finishes. Phrase rhythm, bicolon, and tricolon are clear examples of that, but we also find it in the development in and over phrases.

I am stating the obvious when I say that Classical phrases tend to develop towards their ending, but why is that? We can often recognize a pattern where a phrase starts by an exposition of thematic material, followed by an intensification that comes to rest in the cadence.


Figure 87: Schematic development of a phrase.

In it simplest form this would be 2 bars of melodic character, a change in bar 3 with rhythmical- and harmonic drive that releases itself in the cadence of bar 4. But we also find this outline over groups of phrases. Through this intensification we not only feel a bigger release afterwards, it also signals the approach of an ending and gives us a sense of where we are in the development of a phrase or group of phrases. Recognizing what contributes to this development will probably make for better phrasing and an increased sensitivity for relations between phrases.

One powerful agent is fragmentation (after Caplin). He defines it as the ‘process of shortening the units’.80Caplin, Classical Form, 41. It is very obviously present in the previous Beethoven sentence:


Figure 88: Fragmentation in Beethoven's sentence.

It creates a feeling of added movement, development, as if increasing the drive towards the end—and it can consequently be expressed in phrasing. The tricolon within a tricolon is therefore an often found construction: intensification within expectation.

Fragmentation does not necessarily require taking a fragment of the preceding melody, as demonstrated in the previous period by Mozart:


Figure 89: Fragmentation in Mozart's period.

Often slurs are carefully indicated to confirm this principle. For instance, without the first slur (marked *) there would be an upbeat feeling for the G. I think Mozart wanted to prevent precisely that, making the first phrase an undeniable long unit so that the fragmentation afterwards could work stronger.

Similarly the notation of rests is often more precise than expected. In the previous example the notated semiquaver rests in the final bar are superfluous because two slurred notes would be played like that anyway; but it does force attention to the shortening of units.

Usually harmonic activity increases during the intensification. An example from Mozart’s Horn Concerto, K.447, mov.2.


Figure 90: Opening of the second movement of Mozart's Horn Concerto, K.447.

It is a bicolon in two phrases with an obvious increase in the number of chord changes towards the end of each phrase. But in the bigger picture the second phrase uses stronger harmonic connections than the first, recognizable by the jumps in the bass. This helps to create the expectation of the stronger (perfect) cadence in the tonic phrase as opposed to the half cadence in the preceding dominant phrase. In Mozart’s keyboard parts the left hand is usually carefully worked out to support this principle, where at the beginning of phrases bass notes are often notated short and with rests (i.e. lighter), changing into full length notes (i.e. heavier) at the stronger harmonic changes at the end of the phrase. Unfortunately many pianists blur this with the pedal.

And what about the beginning of a phrase? Koch uses again a parallel with language that I find intriguing. He compares a phrase to a subject (bars 1-2) and predicate (bar 3-4), in the sense that the predicate gives direction and destination to the subject.81Heinrich Christoph Koch, Versuch einer Anleitung zur Komposition, 3 vols (Leipzig, 1787), ii, 352. A subject can thus have many different predicates, and if an extension is added it further defines the predicate.


Figure 91: A subject with 3 different predicates, the top one extended to further define the predicate. Examples by Koch.

This is of course not literally true but it indicates a flexible interaction within phrases that gives life to the musical structure. It confirms the general observation that, in Classical phrases, melody and character/expression often determine the beginning, to be taken over by a more rhythmic and harmonic drive towards the end. Maybe it can even be argued that a phrase is initially lead by melodic interest (content) and towards the end more by harmonic interest (syntax).

Without wanting to turn this into a template it is worth noticing that this notion is often supported by the sub-dominant which frequently only appears at the end of a phrase—almost acting as a pivot point after which the phrase is forced to tip over towards a cadence.

Awareness of above mentioned principles have made an important difference in phrasing for me.

Next chapter: 7 The Performer as Composer