Melodic Phrases in Music Theory

A melodic phrase is a group of notes that make sense together and express a definite melodic “idea”, but it takes more than one phrase to make a complete melody. How do you spot a phrase in a melody? Just as you often pause between the different sections in a sentence (for example, when you say, “wherever you go, there you are”), the melody usually pauses slightly at the end of each phrase. In vocal music, the musical phrases tend to follow the phrases and sentences of the text. For example, listen to the phrases in the melody of “The Riddle Song” and see how they line up with the four sentences in the song.

The Riddle Song

 Melodic phrases

This melody has four phrases (each in a different color), one for each sentence of the text.

But even without text, the phrases in a melody can be very clear. Even without words, the notes are still grouped into melodic “ideas”. Listen to the first strain of Scott Joplin’s “The Easy Winners” to see if you can hear four phrases in the melody. Of course, melodies don’t always divide into clear, separated phrases. Often the phrases in a melody will run into each other, cut each other short, or overlap. This is one of the things that keeps a melody interesting.

Clear melodic phrases

Music that has clear phrases is very common, but there is some music in which phrases are harder to identify. In general, steer clear of Baroque counterpoint (Bach, for example), modern Classical music, the more complex styles of jazz, and late Romantic composers such as Mahler and Wagner. Folk songs, pop
music (including rock and country), children’s songs, hymns, marches, dances, ragtime, opera arias, and symphonic music that has a clear melody are all good places to look. In case you’re still not sure where to start, here are some suggestions that should be easy to find.

Instrumental music with clear phrases

  • Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, or other ragtime tunes
  • The Largo movement of Dvorak’s Symphony Number 9
  • The “March of the Toreadors” from Bizet’s Carmen The “Waltz of the Flowers”, “Chocolate (Spanish Dance)”, “Tea (Chinese Dance)”, or “Trepak (Russian Dance)” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker
  • Almost any popular march

Vocal music with clear phrases

This is so easy to find there is no point in my listing particular pieces for you to look for. Most folk and popular vocal music has clear, separate, easy-to-hear phrases, as do most songs from musicals.

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