A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 17. Phrase Design

Chapter 15. Connections
Chapter 16. Second Inversion Triads


As stated in Chapter 1, the musical phrase is equivalent to a sentence in grammar. Much of the music this text uses to provide examples is in a 4-voice chorale (hymn) format; phrases in a chorale are indicated with fermatas and can be of varying lengths, from as short as one measure to as long as several measures.

The structure of phrases in non-chorale music, however, is a different story. First of all, the harmonic rhythm (the unit at which the harmonies change) is much larger, and the music is not as condensed as hymns. This includes instrumental music such as sonatas and symphonies, and vocal music such as arias and art song. A standard phrase length has evolved over time, which is inevitably 4 or 8 measures long. Each of these phrases will conclude with a clear ending, in the form of an authentic cadence (perfect or imperfect) or a half cadence. It is that cadence which defines the phrase; every phrase must have a cadence, every cadence concludes a phrase.

The length of phrases are remarkably consistent. While the 4-measure or 8-measure phrase has become the standard, this length is by no means inviolate. It is not uncommon to find 16-measure or even 32-measure phrases (often found in very fast pieces) and on rare occasions it is possible to find a 2-measure phrase in exceptionally slow and rhythmically complex music. Phrase lengths tend to remain constant in a given piece (or section) of music.

Phrases are generally constructed from MOTIVES (or CELLS), which are short bits of melody that provide unity and coherence to the phrase. These motives can be rhythmic or intervallic, but usually both are equally important. SUB-PHRASES are larger musical units that can make up a phrase; sometimes it is difficult to distinguish sub-phrases from phrases.

Learn more about motivic development

It is useful to diagram phrase design with lowercase letters that represent melodic materials. The first phrase is always designated as "a". A second phrase can be one of three things:

Additional phrases continue with markers (a, a', a''...) or in the alphabet (a, b, c, d, e...).

The phrase length is included in a diagram as a number (in parentheses) following the letter-label [e.g., a(4) ].

When counting measures within a phrase, the result will be given in whole measures, never fractions of measures. When a phrase begins with an ANACRUSIS (up-beat or pick-up notes), the next downbeat begins the official count. The end of the cadence concludes the count, and even if it is only a partial measure, it will be counted as a full measure.

The standard phrase lengths of 4 or 8 measures are frequently altered by the manipulation of musical materials within the phrase. There are three ways this can be accomplished:

  1. Truncations:

    The standard phrase can have a piece "missing", measures that seemingly should be present but are not, shortening the phrase. These are called TRUNCATIONS, and can happen anywhere in the phrase; beginning, middle, or end.

  2. Extensions:

    The standard phrase can have "extra" material added to it, generally by repeating material already present, lengthening the phrase. These are phrase EXTENSIONS, and like truncations can happen anywhere in the phrase; beginning, middle, or end.

  3. Overlaps:

    Phrases can OVERLAP, making the cadence of one phrase simultaneously the beginning of a new one, as seen in the box below.


Phrases combine to form PERIODS. A period is made up of two phrases that are either PARALLEL or CONTRASTING.

  1. Parallel phrases:

    A period of two parallel phrases is made up of similar material (aa') but with two different cadence types:

    These two phrases are in the ANTECEDENT/CONSEQUENT relationship, which is similar to the concept of question and answer.

    Sometimes they are identical melodies (except for the cadences), sometimes the second phrase is a variation of the first, and sometimes they are merely similar. Generally, they begin with the same material, but may be on different pitch levels. The following example can be heard on CD track #28 in Music for Analysis.

  2. Contrasting phrases:

    As the name states, a period of contrasting phrases (ab) consists of two different melodies. The cadence relationship, however, remains the same as for parallel phrases.


  1. Multi-phrase periods:

    Whille most periods consist of a pair of phrases, it is possible for them to have three (or more) phrases (aab, aa'b, abb, abb', or abc), as seen in example 17.1c above. In the example below, there appear to be five phrases; the first two and the last two are repetitions of each other, which creates a total of three different phrases.

  2. Double periods:

    Frequently, two periods can group into a DOUBLE PERIOD (aa'aa' or aba'b').


Framing devices are used to delineate and connect phrases. They are not considered to be phrases, and therefore are not labelled with letters (a, a', b...). They are, however, a crucial part of phrase design, and therefore need to be indicated. There are four basic framing devices:

  1. Introductions

    INTRODUCTIONS are short phrases that begin a piece of music. They can be constructed in several ways:

  2. Bridges

    Many times composers extend the end of a phrase to connect to the next phrase, creating a BRIDGE. Bridges can be as simple as a passing tone or could be elaborate melodic statements, as in the following example:

  3. Transitions

    TRANSITIONS are like bridges, being used to move from one phrase to another. They are, however, of greater proportion, sometimes even the size of a full phrase or period.

  4. Codas

    CODAS are endings that appear after the main melodic material concludes at the end of a section or movement, the opposite of introductions. They can be quite large or as small as a measure or two (smaller codas are frequently called CODETTAS).


Information presented in this chapter requires an updated definition of "tonality" as given in Chapter 1:
The essential organization is around a single pitch, the tonic, which provides a home base to the ear. All other pitches work to establish the pre-eminence of tonic. Furthermore, an organization of phrases (generally made up of 4, 8, or 16 measures) expand the establishment of tonic; all phrases end with a cadence which confirms this sense of tonic.


The following example shows how a piece of music can be analyzed for phrase design. Listen to a performance.



Analyze the phrase design for the following pieces in Music for Analysis

  1. Mozart: Symphony No. 40, K.550, III [#360] Listen to a performance
  2. Haydn: Sonata in E Minor, Hob. XVI:34, III [#218, CD track #43]
  3. Beethoven: Sonatina in F Major [#239, CD track #54]
  4. Mozart: Sonata, K. 309, Allegretto grazioso [#364, p.326] Listen to a performance
  5. Haydn: Sonata in Ab Major, Hob.XVI:46 [#131]
  6. Beethoven: Sonata, op.26 [#235, CD track #51]
  7. Haydn: Allegro [#147, CD track #17]
  8. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, op.92 [#222] Listen to a performance
  9. Mozart: Sonata, K. 309, Andante, un poco adagio [#364, p.322] Listen to a performance
  10. Mozart: Rondo, K.485 [#71, CD track #9]
  11. Handel: Menuet [#234, CD track #50]

Links to chapters in this unit:
Chapter 15. Connections
Chapter 16. Second Inversion Triads

Link to previous unit: DIATONIC PROCEDURES I: Harmonic Dimensions

Link to next unit: DIATONIC PROCEDURES III: Substitutions

Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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