Micro-Information As Subliminal Feeling: Learning About Musical Phrasing


When I studied music in university, my percussion lessons frequently touched on the topic of phrasing. My teacher would listen to me play through a piece and then suggest ways to improve its rendition. Most of the time, this involved considering alternate ways to play a passage, which I needed because I was so concerned with getting through a piece that I hadn’t spent much time thinking through it. Sometimes we worked on patterns of hand alternation called sticking patternsAn example from rudimentary drumming is a sticking pattern called the paradiddle. To illustrate the feel of playing a paradiddle, tap four equally spaced taps with one hand, and then the other: RRRR, LLLL. Next, tap four alternating taps: RLRL RLRL. Now tap with the paradiddle sticking: RLRR LRLL. The paradiddle sticking feels different from the RRRR and RLRL stickings and this difference is slightly audible—sometimes only subliminally felt—in the sound of the tapping. For the percussionist, there are other ways to alter phrasing besides sticking. You can tactically use dynamics, shaping a passage from soft to loud or loud to soft. You can micro-accelerate or micro-decelerate the tempo to alter the excitement level. Or you can coax contrasting timbres from your instrument by striking it in different ways. Techniques of sticking, dynamics, tempo, and timbre help make what are often sharp-attack, briefly sustained, and indefinitely pitched percussion instruments sound more dynamic.

I thought about my percussion lessons in phrasing recently while I was editing music. (Musical editing comes up regularly on this blog. See for instance my posts Editing for Articulation and The Editing Mindset and Editing Music While Listening And Looking At It.) I listened while looking at the MIDI notes, trying to make sense of what the melody line wanted to do. A representation of a performance in MIDI is a goldmine of information in that it displays the shapes and contours of the melody’s rise and fall, and below that graphic, the velocity (volume) for each note. As I listened to the music while looking at it, I noticed something: notes almost always get louder as I phrase a melody from a lower register to a higher one, and softer when the melody descends. 

I phrase higher pitches as though they are inherently more energized than lower ones, hence deserving of a louder dynamic—more oomph. It’s as though moving to a higher register is taking a scalar journey to arrive at an important destination: let’s-go-up-the-scale-un-til-HERE! But there were a few places where my playing became softer as I moved higher, and usually something about this loud to soft dynamic shift didn’t sound right. Had that been my intention—to go for a gentle upwards gesture? As an experiment, I changed the velocities on a rising three-note, low to high phrase so that it became louder, not softer. It made a big difference: now it sounded better because it sounded more sensible. I was surprised by how this dynamic reversal could impact what the music was trying to say. It was as if sound and gesture had been brought into alignment.

From this I learned three lessons:

Phrasing conveys micro-information inherent in the rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres of the music. 

Phrasing is a perceptual tool that slings our attention around the music’s various depth layers. 

Phrasing is music’s subliminal messenger. 


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