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I don't understand phrasing
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Author:  energy [ Fri Aug 02, 2002 11:41 pm ]
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Hello all,

I have a problem; I just can't seem to understand phrasing. I do understand that phrases are strings of notes that go together, but previously I had thought that phrases are primarily melodic in nature. Now I'm hearing people saying that phrasing is what defines the rhythm and gives the whole tune a feeling of having structure, and that it is the essential basis of the way you approach a tune.

So some starter questions:

1.What is the proper use of phrasing?
2.How should I define phrases?
3.How can I hear phrases on recordings?

Any help would be great...


"Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from wordy evidence of the fact."
-George Eliott

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: energy on 2002-08-03 01:43 ]</font>

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: energy on 2002-08-03 01:52 ]</font>

Author:  Cayden [ Sat Aug 03, 2002 1:40 am ]
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I think it is a subject beyond this forum to explain phrasing in detail. Some good material has been written, Breathnach gives an example of the basic phrasing of the reel The Master's Return and Mitchell in the articles I quoted in another thread does a brilliant job at it too.

Phrasing is at the very core of the music, the phrases are the building blocks and without a proper understanding of them you can't get the music to work properly. The whole question-answer, black-white, up-down thing has to be picked up by listening to good players.
Proper phrasing is what sets the good player apart from the bad. In Pat Mitchell's words

these phrases are the essential building blocks of the music and have the potential to make listening to an Irish traditional dance tune an exquisite experience – or an exasperating one.

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Peter Laban on 2002-08-03 05:29 ]</font>

Author:  blackhawk [ Sat Aug 03, 2002 10:57 am ]
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My understanding of phrasing is that it's where you depart from the machine-like precision of written notes, to slightly lengthen or shorten them to achieve a rhythm or flow that couldn't be done under the constraints of classic notation. It can also involve playing certain notes louder than others (as in hornpipes?) to achieve the desired bounce, or emphasis. Phrasing is a way of describing the ebb and flow that makes Irish music unique in the world. Of course, this can't be demonstrated on a computer screen or in a book, but can only be learned by listening to the actual music.

Author:  Cayden [ Sat Aug 03, 2002 12:10 pm ]
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Just to avoid further confusion, a tune is made up of smaller pieces, these make up the parts.
Playing a tune by the phrase, as a good player would gives the tune meaning, the first phrase asks the question the next one replies, it's the interaction between them that give the tuen it's life, like a conversation [several other images would fit here too but this is the most common one].
When you phrase a tune you bring that structure out.

eg the Lark in the Morning


a fed B

I have left out the connecting notes that fill up the bars, leading up to the next phrase

these smallest phrases make up a longer phrase that ends in BAR 4, halfway through the first part etc etc

Offcourse it is never as simple as that and in the playing of a good player things may get less clear cut when variation of the melody and the rhythm are introduced

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Peter Laban on 2002-08-03 14:12 ]</font>

Author:  energy [ Sun Aug 04, 2002 11:51 am ]
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Thanks a lot! What you've said has really helped.

This is something I've noticed: When I listen to Seamus Ennis or Willie Clancy, I have a hard time discerning what I think are distinct phrases. But when I listen to players like Mike Cooney, Eamonn Cotter, or Donal Murphy, I can easily hear what sounds to me like "questions" and "answers."

Best of luck,


Author:  jim stone [ Sun Aug 04, 2002 7:51 pm ]
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I like Peter's analogy of a conversation.
That's quite helpful.

If I may say something general, I figure
that phrasing is perhaps the greatest
musical art. It's the art of taking
a line of music and accenting (or not
accenting) notes,
letting some of them sing for longer
or for a shorter time, so that the
whole line sings in a beautiful way.
Different artists will phrase
the same line differently. It's there
in virtually every sort of music, including
classical. Frank Sinatra was perhaps the greatest vocalist for phrasing in the last

You know the song, 'Barbry Allen'?

The first line can go:

'In S c a r let town, there l i v e d
a maid.'

Or it can go:

'In Scarlet town, there lived a maid.'

That's phrasing--the latter way places
equal emphasis on each note, and is,
to my ear, more fluid and beautiful.

Author:  Roger O'Keeffe [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 2:48 am ]
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Ah yes! My great hobbyhorse!

The best way to appreciate phrasing is of course to listen to the music - including recordings, especially by people who don't play at the speed of light (cue yet another plug for Brian McNamara's solo album, which I can't praise highly enough as the ultimate didactic performance). One of the problems which I encounter with phrasing springs from the fact that a lot of the people (especially non-Irish) whom I have taught have had a classical music education and are hung up on the written version of tunes.

They therefore tend to assume that all the notes are exactly of the length shown, and to break phrases in line with the bars. They thus fail to appreciate the fact that a phrase typically starts with a note or two before the bar sign (I gather that this is called the up-beat). This problem is aggravated by the way the notes are beamed together. Ideally they should learn by listening, but that just isn't realistic, so I spend some time with a pencil breaking up the beamed sets of notes and inserting commas to highlight the phrasing. I also try to explain the building-block structure of the tune, pointing out that each part (A or B) is typically composed of four phrases or building blocks - a1, a2, a3, a4 etc. - which are partly repetitions or variations of each other). But some of them are never convinced.

Typically in a jig, for example, the notes are written as two beamed sets of three, although the last note of the bar is really part of the phrase which mainly falls into the next bar. I would love to see the books make this explicit in two ways: first by printing the notes in a bar as follows - (beamed 3) (beamed 2) single crotchet - and second, by laying out the bars in a vertical alignment (like a handwriting headline copybook) so that the four-phrase structure and the repetitions or near-repetitions are aligned one above the other and thus more obvious, especially to a person with limited sight-reading ability.

People who know the music can adjust, and will use a collection like O'Neill's as a rough guide rather than as gospel. But can we get a campaign going to convince the publishers of session books to take the approach suggested above, as these books are often used by beginners and other people who are more likely to be influenced by the appearance of the tune in printed form?

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Roger O'Keeffe on 2002-08-05 04:51 ]</font>

Author:  Martin Milner [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 3:17 am ]
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Good Question, good answers, thanks all!

For me it's still coming back to the old adage, you can only get the feel of the music by listening. Listen listen listen. Then play what you hear, not what you see printed on a page. Play along with recordings. Listen.

Author:  Bloomfield [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 7:59 am ]
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I think that becoming aware of phrasing and the structure of tunes has helped me more than any other form of practice. If I were to try to teach someone, they would hear about phrases in the first lesson, and I would start teaching with tunes like Blackthorn Stick or My Darling Asleep that have a very obvious structure:


each being four measures long, and A1 and A2 often being the same (subject to variation). Then you break it down further to look at the questions and answers in each 4-bar phrases.

There was a post a while ago, I forget by whom, that got me thinking until I have come to listen to tunes like this:

Original Question
Original Answer
Restated Question
Final Answer

That final answer seems to me to be the most important and often the most recognizable phrase of the tune (apart perhaps from the 1st question, the opening phrase).

For instance, in Pipe on the Hob (three-part B-band version), that phrase is

K:A dorian (1 sharp)
... eg | age dBe | ABA A...

Somehow, that is what the tune means to me, the resolution of the original, plaintive

c3 edc | edc B...

The "final answer" phrase appears at the end of each part, and to drive home the point that it's at the center of the tune, it is emphasized in the third part with a raised upbeat, bringing along the highest note of the tune, b. It's like saying, "prick up you ears and listen to what I have been telling you":

... ab | age dBe | ABA A3 ||


The Pipe on the Hob, for the abc-challenged. Not quite how I play it, but close enough, I guess (the first-part "final answer" is a bit different, for one thing).



<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Bloomfield on 2002-08-05 10:06 ]</font>

Author:  johnkerr [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 8:42 am ]
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When talking about phrasing in Irish trad music, it's pretty much impossible to discuss it without getting into the mechanics of particular instruments. The reason is that each instrument (or instrument family) has something unique to it which is used to accomplish phrasing in the music. With fiddles it's the bowing pattern, with flutes and whistles it's the breathing pattern, with pipes it's ornamentation (since you can't stop/start the flow of air through the chanter in the midst of a tune), with accordions/concertinas it's the press and draw of the bellows, etc. (The lack of a different note on the press and draw is why English concertina players often don't sound very Irish in their playing.) What's do-able on one instrument family may be well-nigh impossible on another. That's why beginners should be encouraged to listen to good players of their own instruments to learn phrasing. A flute player who listens only to fiddlers will never learn where to breathe in the appropriate places to phrase a tune, because fiddlers can breathe whenever they want to!

Also, Roger O'Keeffe wrote "Ideally they should learn by listening, but that just isn't realistic." I say, why not? Anyone who aspires to be a musician in whatever genre ought to spend a lot of time listening. Probably in the beginning they should spend even more time listening than they do playing...

John Kerr

Author:  StevieJ [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 9:12 am ]
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Phrasing is indeed about "musical phrases" such as the question and answer segments or structural building blocks Peter and others have alluded to, but this is phrasing on a fairly gross level.

To me the word also means means how you choose to articulate tiny little passages within those phrases: how a good player chooses to set even one note apart from its neighbours or not can take the musical satisfaction and interest of the piece (or repetition or variation) to a completely different level.

Jim touched on this, though going off at a tangent I must say I get tired of hearing about Sinatra's phrasing. It seems to me that people hammer this idea because the quality of his voice is so dull - his singing is so leering and aggressive. I can't stand the man, phrasing or no phrasing.

And while I agree with John that you must listen to players of your own instrument to find out how they do things, I'd make an equally strong case for listening to other instruments. A fiddler who has never studied the playing of uillean pipers is an impoverished player of Irish music. And if you don't borrow phrasing ideas from other instruments, you are at much greater risk of becoming a clone of your favourite player of your own instrument. And who needs more clones?

Author:  The Weekenders [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 9:58 am ]
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To second BSteve:

I listen to fiddlers all day long and emulate them rather than whistle records, with the exception of McGrattan, who's whistling I particularly like.

I also like to hear how box players adjust to the same tunes i have heard on fiddles given their instruments character and needs. I really enjoy Bobby Gardiner's version of Fermoy Lasses, for example.

I get a little confused by pipers sometimes because the often-florid ornaments get me into the "forest and trees" metaphor.

As for phrasing: after playing classical music and other kinds of music for most of my life, I have strong inclinations to phrase IRTRAD in certain ways. But I have to temper them by listening to established artists because sometimes the way I want to phrase them isn't in line with trad sensibility.

And every once in a while, I find a reel that seems to have no strongly defined breaking point in the turn or is at least ambiguous as to where you phrase the cadence. This doesn't happen much, but when it does its perplexing, especially when I need to breathe! This happens with sheet music, of course, which illustrates one of the strikes against learning by paper.

Author:  Cayden [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 11:14 am ]
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Sorry to be contrary as per usual but I do think I learned infinitely more listening to other instruments than the one[s] I play myself. Hearing different approaches to a tune makes you realise where the points are you should pay attention to and it gives you some insight in things you may well overlook when lifting them from a player of the same instrument.

[edited some typos]

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Peter Laban on 2002-08-05 14:42 ]</font>

Author:  burnsbyrne [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 11:56 am ]
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I have to agree with Peter on this one, of course with the proviso of moderation in all things. I have long felt that, after one has a good handle on the technical quirks of one's own instrument it is important to listen to more of other instruments. It is so easy to fall into the cliches which are easy to play on one instrument. When you listen to other instruments you learn how the players of those instruments solve the problems unique to that instrument.

I have heard lots of classical guitarists (that's my old thing) with great technique who sound like all the other guitarists. The players who are interesting find their own ways to the goal. Of these, all the ones I have spoken with say they listen to jazz saxophones or some such. It keeps ypur mind young, reminds you that there are many ways to get the job done.


Author:  celtophile [ Mon Aug 05, 2002 12:39 pm ]
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Check out
Download one of the sample lessons.
The lessons include phrasing of the tune.

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