Music Phraseology 101

On the Northern Beat

By Jan Peterson

With apologies to Paul Simon, there must be 50 ways to break up a band… or more: moving away, especially prevalent in college towns; changing life circumstances, like having children; medical issues—one’s own, or a family member’s; these are all common reasons for parting ways.

And, yes, I am writing this because my band is now broken up (we’re still friends). But out of the ashes, new life appears. I’m working on establishing a new band, and I have a new set of characters (figuratively and literally) to deal with. It’s always interesting to find out how others learn, musically-speaking. I now have two extremes: those with classical music training and those with absolutely no musical training. And what is truly amazing to me is that this group of musicians can actually play together and sound great! Bluegrass is like that: it brings folks together.

But there are issues to be overcome, and the most common have to do with timing. A good musician who has learned everything he (or she) knows “by ear” is usually mystified when classically trained musicians talk about timing, or phrasing, using the language of written music. So, in hopes of providing new understanding, or at least clarification, here is a brief summary of terminology.

You’ve probably heard the term beat. A beat is the basic unit of rhythm, the underlying steady pulse of the song, the part that makes you tap your feet. Rhythm is a repeating sequence of stressed and unstressed beats (sometimes called “strong” and “weak”), divided into “bars” organized by “time signature” and tempo indications (more on this later).

This rhythm is usually embedded in the bluegrass guitar’s strum (affectionately verbalized as “boom-chick” where “boom” denotes the plucking of a bass note on the down-beat, while “chick” denotes the strum of a chord on the up-beat). Yes, “the beat” can be subdivided into a downbeat and an upbeat, and it’s that rocking, back-and-forth, repetitive gesture that IS the beat. When we talk of “getting in the groove,” that’s when all the musicians in a group are feeling the exact same rhythmic timing, with no tension between individuals having slightly “off” timing.

A group of beats are collected into what we like to call a bar (we just like that word). Actually, it’s because the bar line (or barline) is a vertical line across a printed “music staff” (the group of horizontal lines that denote frequencies) so that where a note is placed on the staff tells us what note, or frequency, the player should play (i.e., an F note). When you “read” music, you are “reading” these notes on a staff.

Bars separate collections of the notes into groupings related to beats. The actual number of beats contained within a bar varies with different styles of music, but with bluegrass music, you will usually find four beats in a bar. (Five beatniks walk into a bar, but the bartender tells them he can’t allow more than 4 “beats” in a bar.)

Musical notation is based on this concept of a bar. The noun “bar” is defined as:

  • A long rod or rigid piece of wood, metal, or similar material

  • A counter across which alcoholic drinks or refreshments are served (musicians are typically well-versed in this version of the word)

  • A barrier or restriction to an action or advance (synonyms: obstacle, impediment, hindrance, obstruction)

  • In music: a measure of music or the time of a piece of music

  • Just to complicate things, the exact same thing is also known as “a measure.” The noun “measure” is musically defined as:

  • The rhythm of a piece of poetry or a piece of music (synonyms: meter, cadence, rhythm)

  • A particular metrical unit or group (measures of two or three syllables are more frequent in English prose)

  • Any of the sections, typically of equal time value, into which a musical composition is divided, shown on a score by vertical lines across the staff (i.e., a bar!)

  • Just like beats are grouped into bars, the bars themselves are grouped into phrases. When someone tells you that this song has “an A part and a B part,” he’s telling you there are distinctly different musical phrasings in different parts of the song. And just to confuse matters a little more, the A and B parts, themselves, are usually comprised of multiple phrases.

Next: whether we know it or not, music is all constructed on the framework of a “time signature.” We all understand it intuitively, when someone says, “This is waltz time,” meaning 3/4 time (pronounced “three-four time”) as opposed to the more common 4/4 time: there are three beats “to a bar” (or three beats “to a measure”) rather than four.

In jazz, it’s fairly common to have unusual time signatures (like Brubeck’s “Take Five,” using 5/4 time) and for time signatures (which are a printed indicator of the beats-per-bar, placed at the beginning of the staff) to change, even numerous times, in the composition of a single musical piece. In bluegrass, that’s almost unheard of; once we start a rhythm we tend to stay with that rhythm (think continuously-rolling banjo). Still, there are always exceptions.

The full explanation of the 3/4 time signature is “three beats to a bar, and the quarter note gets the beat,” which only makes sense to those who actually read music scores. But the idea is relatively easy to grasp: your timing repeats 123/123 instead of 1234/1234. Six/eight time is just a high-energy 3/4 time (think “Irish Washer Woman”), where the eighth note gets the beat, rather than the quarter note. It’s still based on threes: 123456/123456, which could also be 123/456/123/456.

But this brings us back to the term “phrase,” because a minimum complete phrase in 6/8 time requires a full six beats, while a minimum complete phrase in 3/4 time can be just three beats. Different songs have differing lengths of complete phrases, but a complete phrase in 4/4 time is usually eight beats (although it can be 16, or four… but always an integer multiple of the basic four beats/bar).

The lyrics in vocal music can really help you understand phrasing. The natural punctuation of the sentence structure will often determine the phrase: periods, commas, and semi-colons usually correspond with the phasing. However, without lyrics it can sometimes be difficult to determine a phrase, because phrases can have smaller phrases (musical ideas) embedding into them.

So all of these words are a bit nebulous, as they are applied to music. But that’s because we don’t want rules to get in the way of invention! Isn’t it incredible what we can do with only an octave worth of notes? How many 1-4-5 songs do you know? Isn’t that amazing? 

We have rules, but not too many and —sometimes— we even break them on purpose. Like “The Clinch Mountain Backstep,” where the composer just said, look I can add a beat if I want to! Or “Rebecca,” where “the trick” to understanding the song is to know that every time you go to the four chord, it only gets three beats (it’s a 4/4 song) —except for the first four chord in the beginning phase, where it only gets one beat.

These are all technical issues that we address in order to play music that an audience (or “an audient” if there’s only one listener) will enjoy and come back for more. Music is mostly (my opinion) about eliciting emotions from the players (who need to feel it) as well as the listening audience (whether that’s your neighbors on the porch or a auditorium filled with thousands of people). Getting emotion into your musical delivery is something you need to continuously develop over time, as your technical skills continue to improve.

Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I “believe” classically trained musicians are necessarily “better” than those who have learned by ear. In fact, the thing musicians want most is to be able to effortlessly translate, with their fingers, the notes they hear in their heads, and those who learn by ear are actually closer to the ability to do that. But there are excellent musicians who have learned their craft both ways!

Of course, the best of all possible worlds is to do both: play by ear, but also have classical training so you understand musical technicalities. But there is no reason to pre-judge anyone on how they learned—or on any measure of ability other than actual performance. I’m just trying to help you improve your performance.