Writing melodies isn’t always easy, and when it isn’t easy, it isn’t fun.
But it doesn’t always have to be difficult. If we have a list of useful musical phrases, we can use and adapt them to fit the song.
So let’s knuckle down and learn about musical shapes before we head onto musical phrases.
What is a musical shape?
A musical shape is the contour that your notes follow.
If you look at a piece of sheet music or the notes in your DAW, you’ll notice the pitches go up and down, or stay level. If we use a pencil and match up each note (like a dot to dot picture) we get a contour.
These contours are your musical shapes and each one can have a particular effect on the listener.
What is a phrase in music?
A musical phrase is a sequence of individual notes that form a singular musical idea.
When you listen to music, you’ll usually be able to tell these musical phrases apart just by listening to how the lyric lines are sung. Each lyric line is usually an individual musical phrase.
Think of a phrase like a single sentence, add or repeat this specific phrase and it creates a section such as a verse or chorus.
Musical phrases allow our listeners to remember our melodies. They also give us a great opportunity to express the emotion in the lyrics to their full potential, because certain musical phrases make us feel sad, happy, or anxious etc.
How many musical phrases should you have in a song?
Well, don’t over do it and have millions (perhaps a slight exaggeration there).
Here’s a simple and easy example of using musical phrases:
- Lyric line 1 – Phrase 1
- Lyric line 2 – Phrase 2
- Lyric line 3 – Phrase 1
- Lyric line 4 – Phrase 2
- Lyric line 1 – Phrase 3
- Lyric line 2 – Phrase 3
- Lyric line 3 – Phrase 4
- Lyric line 4 – Phrase 4
- Lyric line 5 – Phrase 5
In the example above, I’ve only used 5 different musical phrases.
These musical phrases would be repeated for the 2nd verse and subsequent choruses. This gives the listener several opportunities to remember the melody.
7 musical phrases you can mix ‘n’ match in your own songs
Below we are going to go through 7 different musical phrases that you can use for your own songs.
The examples below are in the key of C major.
You don’t need to use these exact musical phrases as I present them, please experiment with these phrases so that they suit the needs of your song.
You can play around with the following – pitches, note duration, note rests, note articulation, dynamics of your voice or the instrument etc.
Let’s get started…
7. The climb & descent
We start with the most basic musical phrases, the ‘climb’ and the ‘descent.’ These can be used individually, or you can put them together.
When we use the ‘climb’ musical phrase we have a steady incline of pitches, for example:
And in the decline we see the opposite:
These two musical phrases can be used to create an instant increase or decrease in the main emotion you’re portraying in the song.
For example, in C major the ‘climb’ would feel like growing happiness or delight; whereas the ‘decline’ would feel like calming down and relaxing.
6. The stairs
As the name suggests, this musical phrase looks like we are going up a set of stairs.
This phrase usually involves a small group of notes with similar pitches, which are then raised, and raised again, as though they are travelling up a flight of stairs, for example:
The ‘stairs’ musical phrase is great for building anticipation which you can increase by changing the distance between the pitches of each step. The bigger the leap to the next step, the greater the anticipation.
This can also be used in reverse – going down the stairs.
5. The sideways steps
The ‘sideways step’ is a musical phrase that helps you build momentum in your song, and helps establish rhythm and groove.
The most common use for the ‘sidewise step’ comes before a long extended note, for example:
This musical phrase is incredibly common, as the subtle changes in pitch is easier for the listener to remember, and it’s easier to sing along to.
The ‘sideways steps’ is good for building anticipation and excitement, as the listener is waiting for the release which could be a pause, a long extended note, or a power note.
4. The run and…
The ‘run’ is a group of notes which are the same pitch, these are followed by either a higher or lower note which completes the musical phrase.
Here’s an example of how it may sound, followed by a high note:
This musical phrase has a similar effect to the ‘sideways steps,’ however the ‘run’ has a greater and more powerful impact on the listener. Due to the lack of groove, it could add a more stern and aggressive tone to the lyrics.
3. The wave
The ‘wave’ is beautiful and elegant musical phrase, similar to the ‘sideways step.’
As the name suggests it follows a wave like pattern, where notes gently go up and down, for example:
If the tempo is slow and steady it can have a lullaby feel. If the tempo is fast it can feel like you’re sailing on rough seas.
If you’d like to break up your song with a slow bridge perhaps, using a slow wave would be like the calm before the storm.
2. The arch
The ‘arch’ as the name suggests has the notes following an arch shape, starting off low and reaching a peak before coming back down again.
You tend to find that these musical phrases are a little longer than others, because the contour has a lot more happening in it. Here’s an example:
The effect is similar to the ‘climb’ and ‘descent’ added together, however this is more subtle. It’s a steady climb with a slow release.
This can also be used in reverse starting with a high note first.
One of my favorite phrases to create is ‘teleportation’ as I feel it adds an unexpected twist to the music, enticing the listener to keep playing the song.
This is done by starting off on another musical phrase, then suddenly shifting the pitches elsewhere to finish off the phrase.
Here’s an example using ‘sideways steps’:
The shift in pitches is unexpected, and keeps your listener alert. Here’s how it could sound:
As you can hear we start off creating groove in the lower pitches, then the last 3 notes are suddenly in the next octave… what?!
This adds importance and emphasis on the last notes which you’ve shifted to the next octave.
It’s your turn
There we have it, 7 musical phrases you can experiment with.
You can experiment with each phrase by changing the duration of individual notes, changing the pitches of individual notes, or by merging two phrases together. There is no end to the sorts of phrases you can create.
But, remember, it isn’t all about musical shapes and musical phrases. If you’re a lyricist, pay attention to how your phrases and lyrics communicate. How does the melody make you feel? Does it match what the lyrics are saying?
Emphasize pivotal words with higher notes, and experiment with dynamics and your voice registers. Do everything or none of the above. It is your choice!
Musical phrases are only one part of this improvised puzzle!
Good luck, and get creating!