A Guide to Phrasing

  • 05/14/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Elements of Speech
-a lesson on phrasing-

About the Language
Do you remember the first time you were aware of your attraction to music? What made music so special to you that you would dedicate countless hours practicing? Perhaps you wanted to be recognized for your work? Or maybe you needed an artistic element in your life to bring out things that could not come out otherwise? Or was it possibly just that you were just born that way?

Whatever reasons that brought you to being a musician, I believe they all have in common a deep desire to express yourself. In that matter, music is a language in itself. Music can make the toughest man cry. It can also lift spirits like few other things can. Being a musician is far more than practicing scales and technique. Being a musician involves studying the language and learning how to use sound to speak to the listener and touch his soul without the use of a single word.

Improvisation is much like a speech. The musician will use notes and various rhythm elements to convey ideas and tell a story to the listener. This article will study several elements of speech and hopefully inspire you new ideas.

Letters, Words and Alphabets
Letters in music can be associated to notes.
These notes are: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#.
That's 12 letters to chose from to create words.

Words in music can be associated with licks. There are a multitude of licks. Some are quite commonly used, but others are yet to be created. In that regard, music is a living language. Just like any living language, words change, evolve and sometimes disappear to be rediscovered many years later.

If you've been playing for a little while, you know that some notes won't work in some cases. They will sound completely out of place and clash with the chords you are playing over. Therefore, there are a few rules that need to be followed in order to phrase correctly. These rules are given by the key of the song you are playing. That key determines a set of notes that are allowed to be played. These keys can be associated with a set of letters organized in different alphabets.

Grammar and Rules
Many guitar players feel that these rules and theory concepts will hinder their natural ability to express themselves on the instrument. I was one of them during my early years as a guitar player. I used to think that understanding what I play would somehow take away the magical feeling I would get when hitting the right note.

That conception was actually hindering my progress in many ways. I was not able to get passed certain things. I thought that knowing the rules would put me in a box and prevent me to truly express myself. I was wrong!

Consider a poet. A poet is able to convey new ideas and touch your soul with the use of words. They have true linguistic mastery and yet can come up with fresh new ideas. Mastering the language takes work and requires the study of sometimes complex grammatical rules. However, these rules don't limit the poet. They are guidelines, but they don't prevent a good poet to express himself freely.

I once read an ad for a music school in a guitar magazine. The ad said something like this: "You must know the rules in order to break them."

I think that slogan resumes very well what we are discussing here.

In my personal experience, understanding theory has made me appreciate music even more. I still very much enjoy simple musical things, and don't analyze everything I hear. My appreciation for music has expanded from my understanding of musical rules.

You might be asking yourself now how someone can break free from these rules and express himself without feeling tied to theory. That question should be on every player's mind. Following are a few ideas that may help you develop new ideas and help you communicate something personal through your musical.

I've always been a fan of the way a saxophone player phrases. I love the way they build musical sentences in a digestible way to the listener. The secret to achieving a similar effect is to breathe properly.

A saxophone player must blow air to get some notes out. That means that they must learn how and when to inhale more air. Doing so creates natural flowing licks. As guitar players, we can play very long musical ideas without needing to stop our flow of notes to inhale. Although that can be useful in some situations, the lack of pause can also lose the listener's attention. A great exercise would be to play notes only as you exhale. That will force you to organize your ideas and think about what you want to say.

Another idea to help you sound like yourself when you play is to explore different volumes. If I want to make a point in my speech I might say a few words louder than other to accentuate the importance of them.


The difference in volume here will hopefully help the listener understand that you are telling them something important.

Note that it is not necessary the loudness of the words that make them important. It is rather the difference in volume that emphasizes the importance of the idea. Someone could very well emphasize the importance of the idea by using lower volume.

Example: "You really need to work on this..."

The previous example will have the same effect giving the listener a sense that what you are telling him is important. Almost like you gave him a secret. Next time you improvise, try playing with these ideas using louder and softer notes to make a musical statement.

Questions and answers
Because music is a language, it involves two important parties: the one who speaks and the one who listens. In that regards, it is important while improvising to make sure the listener understands your language and what you are talking about.

If a complete stranger came up to you one day and started telling you about the atomic constitution of an apple, you wold most likely be confused. It's the same thing with music. If you start your improvisation with long complex licks, the listener will probably be confused and lose interest in what you are saying very fast.

A safe way to improvise while making sense to the listener is to use the principle of question an answer. The idea is to create short licks, and answer them with new musical ideas. A great exercise is to start a lick, then play a new one that starts like the previous one ended.

Play Like You Talk
A very useful exercise to improve your phrasing is make up little sentences and play your guitar as you speak them. This will most likely inspire you new ideas and give your lead direction.

Using lyrics of a song you know is an excellent way of doing so. Try to play a new lick each time you start a new sentence. Be aware of your breathing too as it will help you sound more organized and coherent.

You don't need anything fancy, start with a very simple tune and experiment. Children songs and lullabies are excellent starting points because they are easy to remember and usually work very well in that style of exercise.

Remember the Listener
When improvising, it is very beneficial to remember who you are speaking to musically. What are you communicating?

Are you trying to make a point that you are the fastest player out there? Will the listener usually be impressed by someone always speaking fast?

Are you trying to explain to the listener who you are and what you feel? Will the listener want to know your deepest thoughts before even knowing your name?

All these important questions will help you phrase more efficiently.

Although this rule is not fixed, starting your lead with a simple statement and elaborating it will help your lead be more memorable. Start slowly with a few strong short melodic ideas. Repeat them and embellish them until the listener is drawn into what you are telling him musically. There human ear takes great pleasure recognizing sounds it has heard before. If you manage to create that kind of connection with the listener, you can then throw at him more advanced and technical ideas.

Seduce your audience with short simple ear candy, then unleash the shred!

Final Thoughts
Improvising can be intimidating at first, especially when playing with more experienced players. Next time you find yourself in such a situation, just remember that improvising is just like having a conversation. In that regard, don't feel like you always have to take the lead. Simply listen to what the other players are saying and respond to them.

Going back to that simple analogy will help you organize your thoughts and sound more coherent when playing. Don't overdo it, listen to what the others are saying and participate.

Practice well!