Skip to main content

Section 11.5 Subphrase

Subphrases are smaller than phrases but larger than motives. Most of the subphrases we encounter will be two measures long. Subphrases are called “phrase segments” and “phrase members” in other texts.
We will label subphrases with letters (a, b, etc.). When a subphrase repeats but has slight alterations, we will put an apostrophe after the letter (e.g., a’) and refer to it as “a prime.” If another alteration to subphrase a occurs, we will label it as a’’ and refer to it as “a double prime.” If the subphrase is merely transposed (in a sequence), we will label it as a, not a’ in our analysis.
We are including analysis of subphrases in this text because many compositions have melodic units that are two measures long. Analyzing subphrases helps us understand the construction of melodies.
In the following example, notice that subphrases a and a’ have the same first six notes (\(\text{G}^♯\)\(\text{F}^♯\)\(\text{B}\)\(\text{C}^♯\)\(\text{E}\)\(\text{E}\)).
Figure 11.5.1. Christine McVie, “Don’t Stop” (1977)
Here is an example of a four-measure phrase with subphrases a and b.
Figure 11.5.2. Stefan Gordy and Skyler Gordy, “Party Rock Anthem” (2011)
Notice that we are not looking at the motives within these subphrases. This is because we are looking for melodic segments that are repeated. For some compositions it is more informative to look at subphrases and less informative to identify motives if motives are not extracted and developed.
There will be times when you will notice important melodic ideas happening at three levels of analysis (motive, subphrase, and phrase), as in the following example.
Figure 11.5.3. Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain, Neil Schon, “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981)
There is ambiguity between motive and subphrase. Reconsider the following example from the section on intervallic change:
Figure 11.5.4. Ray Noble, “The Very Thought of You” (1934)
When you listen to the music of “The Very Thought of You” you will hear that each motive lasts for two measures. The difference is that motives are typically short—two to seven notes—whereas subphrases will usually contain six or more notes and occupy two measures (half of a four-measure phrase).