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Section 11.4 Phrase

Musical form is full of sections, and the phrase is the smallest category of section. Unlike a motive, a phrase gives the sense of completing a formal unit.

In classical music, phrases always end with cadences; if you have encountered a cadence, you have just witnessed the completion of a phrase. In popular music, a phrase might be completed by a melody reaching four measures in length or by completing a line of lyric instead of by a cadence.

To generalize (or perhaps over-generalize), most of the phrases you encounter will be four measures in length and will end with one of the four cadence types (authentic cadence, half cadence, deceptive cadence, and, less commonly, the plagal cadence). While four- and eight-measure phrases are the most common, you will also encounter phrases that are five, six, and seven measures in length. Less commonly, you will encounter three-measure phrases.

Here are examples of four-measure phrases. Notice that these phrases have a sense of completion even though they do not end with cadences.

Figure 11.4.1. Robinson and White, “My Girl”
Figure 11.4.2. Ashford and Simpson, “I’m Every Woman”

Here is an example of a five-measure phrase. Notice that the final chord (a minor iv chord, which will be discussed in the chapter on mode mixture) is part of a half cadence or deceptive cadence, yet the phrase has a feeling of completion, especially considering its relation to the phrases before and after it.

Figure 11.4.3. Smith, Eriksen, Hermansen, Lind, Bjørklund, Knowles, “Irreplaceable”

Here is an example of a six-measure phrase that ends with a \(\left.\text{V}^{7}\right.\)-\(\left.\text{i}\right.\) cadence in \(\text{G}\) minor.

Figure 11.4.4. Mozart, Symphony No. 40, K. 550, III

Here is an example of an 8-measure phrase.

Figure 11.4.5. Mozart, Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545, II

Examples of seven-measure phrases are rare and often involve elisions, which will be covered in a later chapter when we discuss how phrases are combined to create small forms like periods and phrase groups.