#1
Phrasing

I wrote this article for another site a long time ago, it was one of my most popular and to this day I get emails asking for further info on the sibject. I am sure many of you know this stuff already, but for those that don't, here it is. Hope you enjoy reading it.
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I figured with all the other harmonic gurus on this board that I would depart from my usual "more depth than anyone really wants" style of writing and go into an often neglected part of guitar playing: the art of phrasing.

Generally, when we hear people speak of "phrasing" in music, they are refering to the way in which a player articulates his notes; more accurately, the way he turns notes into something musical, a phrase.

When I say this is a very neglected part of playing, I am actually grossly understating the facts. The number one thing that tells me how good a guy is or how new to playing music somebody is is their phrasing.

In a basic example, say you are playing a scalar run of 16h notes in 4/4 time through 3 octaves and for the most part you are using 3 note per string patterns. A natural thing to do, ususally unintentionally, is to emphasize the first note hit on each new string. This is poor phrasing at it's worst!!! If playing in 4/4, unless using syncopation (described below) the meter dictates that the emphasis fall on each beat.

SO.... In the 16th note example, it would look something like this.... Swsw Swsw Swsw Swsw. OK, the S= Strong, w= weak, s= in between. This is a non syncopated 4/4 16th note rhythmic pattern.

Let me take a minute and discuss rhythm and meter a little bit. Each meter has it's own distinctive pulse. 4/4, the one which every musician on this board is likely most strongly acquainted with, is 1...2...3...4... (each period indicates 16th notes between beats). The rhytmic emphasis varies from genre to genre, but generally speaking, the first and third beats are strong, the second and fourth beats are less strong. In rock, the first beat ususally gets a bass drum, and the third gets a snare. The ride will fill in 8th notes.

It is this metric structure which gives the rhythms in music the power to affect us physically. I personally almost cannot stop myself from at least tapping my fingers to a good beat. Go to any rave, this basic beat is repeated ad nauseam in almost every tune, in fact DJ's have built their careers from just this. Because of the ubiquitousness of these beats, almost any rock/pop/dance music may be blended once the tempos are matched.

Another common meter is 3/4, usually found in minuets, scherzos and waltzes.... which are all dance forms fom the past. The metric structure of 3/4 is S...w...s... or S...s...w... If playing 8th notes, it would be three sets of 2 8th notes, and 16th note would be 3 sets of 4 16th notes. This type of meter has a naturally occuring anacrusis (upbeat) accenting the strong beat of each measure, whic is why the dance forms above employed it almost exclusively.

6/8, a favorite of mine, differs from 3/4. Where 3/4 in 8th notes would look like this S.w.s. , 6/8 would look like S..w.. . The rhythm of 6/8 is divided by two, verses the division by 3 in 3/4. A measure of 6/8 music is symetrically divisible by 2, a measure of 3/4 is not. Same number of 8th notes in each, different divisions.

There are of course several other meters, and if anyone is interested I will get in depth on them later by request. But meter is not really the focus of this article. I just needed to get the basics out there so that the rest of this makes sense to any new comers.

The anacrusis is critical to gving a phrase forward momentum. It is simply a beginning part of a phrase played on the upbeat. Like starting on the 4th beat of a measure. In Baroque music, 99% or more of phrases are begun on anacrusis. Actually, I cannot think of an era since or a genre in which this is not the practice. Phrases almost never start on a string beat, and almost always end on one. Of course there are always exceptions to any generalization in music.

Syncopation is where accents occur off the beat. The clave rhythm, a staple in latin music, is a common example of syncopation. Syncopation, when used judiciously, can be a powerful element in ones rhythmic vocabulary. This is another topic worthy of it's own aricle so I'll just leave it at that unless anyone has specific questions regarding the topic.

OK, so that is a little rhythm 101. How do you use it as a guitarist? Like I said in the beginning, when playing, whether it's a solo, a chord melody, a rhythm part or whatever, proper articulation of the meter will give your music life and make it sound a like music. Ignorance of the meter will make your playing sound like mindless noodling, no matter how nice your note choic or how speedy your chops.

There are ways to develop this. One thing I teach students is regarding legato playing (where metric emphasis is often difficult to articulate) is to plan out you lines so that moving from string to string, or anything involving picking the string, is done in such a way as to naturally emphasize the meter. In other words, if playing all legato for a part of a solo, use patterns that allow you to change strings on a beat.

When picking fast passages (or slow ones for that matter) a little (tiny, tiny bit) of extra force on the beats is all it takes to clearly articulate a rhythm. I like to articulate all the subdivisions of the beat as well, but it may take a lot of time for some of you to develop that degree of control.

Slides, tapping, bending, all these may be used to articulate, or destroy, the meter.

Bending is a sore spot with me. Too many noob guitarist bend notes willy nilly (did I ust say williy nilly?) and have no clue as to what they are actually doing. A bent note is just another form of legato playing and as such is subject to the same constraints in regard to rhythm and pitch as any other note played. When bending notes, ALWAYS have the target note in mind, do not just bend the string for the sake of hearing it bend.

Another thing to consider when improvising or writing melodies is contour. Contour is simply the shape of a melody. Like anything found in nature, contours are often compound structures. The overall contour of a melody may be an arch (most common) while it's parts are themselves smaller contoured structures. ALL melodies have a contour of some type. Generally, any phrase will have a high and low point, and parts in between. A great many melodies have their high point somewhere around three fourths of the way towards the end. There are actually mathmatically based aesthetical reasons for this, but I will not bore you with expalingin the Fibonacci sequence and it's presence in almost all music and art.

Minding ones contour is a great way to pull off some wonderful playing. If you change the notes of a melody, but keep it's contour intact, the listenr can still subconciously refernce the original melody. IN A PIECE OF MUSIC, ONCE THE LISTENER CAN NO LONGER REFERNCE THE ORIGNAL MATERIAL TO WHAT HE IS CURRENTLY HEARING, YOU HAVE LOST HIM. I have written numerous articles on motivic development and I believe some are on this site somewhere, read them for more on this.

Ornamentation. For the purposes of this article, ornamentation is defined as the addition of notes to a melody in order to emphasize or deemphasize notes, harmony or momentum. This is a highly personalized part of playing. Soloists pay their bills with their ornamentation skills. Basically, take any melody you want, and add to it. Keeping in mind what I have siad about meter, one might ornament a plain quarter note melody with grace notes or even scalar passages. Say you got a melodic fragment that moves from the note E to the note F with E on an anacrusis. Instead of just going E-F, one might replace the quarter note E with a small stream of 16th notes leading up to the F on the downbeat. In jazz, a common practice is to approach harmonic tones from either a halfstep above or below. Taken to an extreme, one can play entirel chromatic passages over very basic harmonis and leave the progression intact, although highly colored.

Phrasing is a a very personal part of developing ones own style, and there really are no hard rules once one has a basic understanding of rhythm and pitch. A great exercise I can offer is this. Take anything you like, a scale, an arpeggio, a little melody, all of the above. First, learn it in strict picking. Pick every note until it is perfect. Then, mix in some legato notes. Find sweet spots where instead of picking the next note, a bend will work. Combine this with some hammering, tapping and any other way to articualte the note. Well known melodies like "Amazing Grace" and "The Star Spangled Banner" are great for this because even after you mangel the hell out of them, the basic melodic contour is still recognizeable.

One thing about writing things like this on a web forum is that I cannot really get into any degree of depth, both because of the nature of the audience, my impatience at the keyboard, and the character limit of the forum. I will gladly answer any questions regarding this or any other aspect of music. The subject of phrasing is going to take up at least a few chapters in my book, so what I have written here is not even really a scratch on the surface
#2
After the above article, I was bombarded with questions about odd meters and such, so here is supplemental info that I responded with.

(In rsponse to questions regarding meter)

The reason 3/4 cannot be divided as S..w.. and 6/8 can't be divided as S.w.s. is that if they were, they would be heard as the other. That is all. The time signatures exist to tell us how to accent our notes. If you are hearing a tune in 6/8 and suddenly it goes into a triple meter (such as 3/4) then you are no longer hearing 6/8. Of course, one could say it was a syncopated 6/8, but what is the point? It is perfectly acceptable to change meters in any given measure. I worte a series of 4 part choral works for a church a few years back and they had a thing for 6/4 as the penultimate (second to last) measure of their hymns. So everything I sold them was 4/4 except that second to last measure.

I guess this really only matters when reading or writing charts or communicating with other musicians.

As far as rules to tell us, I am not sure really what to say on that. In my way of seeing things, if it were 12/8, each measure would sound kind of like a really quick set of 2 3/4 measures, each half of the 12/8 measure corrosponding to a single 3/4 measure. Actually, at that point, one could feasably call it either. There actually is more than one way to write down music, it all comes down to a little personal judgement.

Knowing that the typical phrase is 4 measures (I said typical, not every), I try and set my time signatures to bear this out. So if I were writing music and started seeing a pattern of eight measure phrases, then I would likely change my time signature to accomodate.

Here is an example. Say you are writing a "Perpetual Motion" style solo piece. Say you set your tempo to 120 bpm, and you find yourself using all 32nd notes. You could change them to 16th notes, double your tempo, and the music would play identically to the 32nd note version. The reason for doing this is purely practical, less ink on the page, if a professional player were sight reading your music, the 16th notes make his job much easier.

The above example doesn't really explore different meters, but the same principles apply. It is of course perfectly acceptable to change the meter on the page to reflect the new groupings. The thing to keep in mind is that you want people whom you may never meet who are being payed to play your music to be able to accurately interpret your musical ideas. Think about it, noone alive has ever heard Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Brahams, etc... play their music, their notation is all we have to go on in interpreting their musical ideas. We as composers are so incredibly lucky to live in a time where our own performances may be captured in so many different media.

I guess for me personally, I see x/8 as being in duple meter, the 8th notes allow for even divisions of the measure, while x/4 (if x is an odd number such as 3) I tend to see as triple meter. Also, looking at the beams on the notes is really helpful. If the music were written by anyone who can notate music competently (and, to my amazement, I have met music majors who do not fully grasp this simple little thing), even absent a time signature, the way the notes are connected by their beams will indicate groupings.

Now, on odd meters, like 15/8. Hmmm... 15/8, now that would really trip me up, I may have to write a piece to explore the possibilities of such a meter. I have yet in all my study and experience to discover any hard rules governing odd meters (odd not meaning 3/4 but reall whack meters like 7/8, 9/8, 15/8, etc......). Again, with such unusual meters, the way the music is notated, the beamed groups, will spell out the accents. I think I may have mentioned this elsewhere, but again I will say, in these odd meters, the key is that your rhythmic groupings are somewhat consistent. So whatever it is you settle on, say for instance in 7/8 "S.s..w./S.s..w./S.s..w./S.s.w.w" (actual example from an old prog trio I played with), notice rhythmically speaking that the first 3 measures are identical, and to help a feeling of cadence, the last measure is slightly altered.

Hope this kind of answers your question. Feel free to hit me with more, I am hooked on this sh!t like a crackhead, have been for many years, and I really like it when I meet other musicians who are actually interested in perfecting their art.
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