Lyrical Phrasing in Music

Woman With Lyre Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection

Roots in Lyric Poetry

In the context of musical phrasing, I teach what I like to call “poetic phrasing.” In contrast to the more mechanical practice of follow the shape of the line, I teach that our phrasing should be very similar to the phrasing of poetry. I believe we should have open phrases and closed phrases and that the big picture should also demonstrate phrasing at the period level (a period being one or more open phrases followed by a closed phrase). This more poetic form of musical phrasing is for the most part independent of the shape of the line.

The practice of following the shape of the line is, in my opinion, much less expressive than poetic phrasing. My suspicions are that the reason some people play this way is because it is easier to play the high notes louder and the low notes softer. But is it really musically expressive to play that way? I don’t think so.

There is a famous German music theorist named Heinrich Schenker. In the introduction to his book titled Harmony, Schenker explains the need for repetition in music as being that of self propagation. He writes that music, unlike all other art forms, does not imitate nature. When you see a painting of a tree, you recognize it as a tree. Music, especially music harmony, does not imitate nature in such an obvious way and therefore requires self propagation in the form of motivic development.

I disagree with Schenker. I understand that his concept is indeed valid in the context of harmony, but I disagree if the idea is to be applied generally to all aspects of music. The melodic phrase, in my opinion, has a direct relationship to the human voice. When a musician strives to perform more lyrically, the objective should be to imitate the natural tendencies of the human voice.

Herein lies the musical connection to lyric poetry and thus, the use of the word lyrical in describing musical phrasing. Lyric poetry is defined as:

a genre of poetry that expresses personal and emotional feelings. In the ancient world, lyric poems were those which were sung to the lyre.


The follow the shape of the line approach to phrasing doesn’t match the emotional impact of poetic phrasing because it is derived from a mechanical  source. These mechanical aspects are most often independent of the musical qualities in modern music. In that sense, what you reap is what you sow. If the shape of your melodic phrases are determined by mechanical aspects of the music, then your melodies are apt to sound more mechanical. Poetic phrasing, on the other hand, transcends the notes on the page and speaks directly to the hearts of the listeners.

This poetic phrasing is a big part of my teaching, especially for those who are studying classical music. As my student, you will learn this aspect of our art that so many seem to be neglecting today. Music is meant to touch the hearts of the people in our lives and I want to help you do that. The good news is that it doesn’t matter how developed your technical proficiency is. I teach poetic phrasing to all of my students at every level of their development. You can start learning it now.

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About Eddie Lewis

Eddie Lewis is primarily known as a Christian free-lance trumpet player in Houston, TX. Eddie makes a living playing trumpet, teaching trumpet and jazz improvisation, writing trumpet music and authoring trumpet books. His second book, Daily Routines for Trumpet, is used regularly by thousands of trumpet players around the world. If you would like to purchase some of his CD's, feel free to visit our online music store at
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