By Deanne Ledebuhr
Why Phrasing Is Important
Lyrical songs are a collection of phrases. The words you emphasize color the meaning. You can draw in the audience with dynamic phrasing and keep them interested.
In spoken communication, the meaning of a sentence changes depending on which words are emphasized. The words that you make the loudest are the most defined. Depending on the point of dynamic emphasis, for example, “I REALLY like you” a subtext of meaning is conveyed. It leads to the question, “What do you mean, you REALLY like me?”
The same thing is true when you are singing. Good singers only think about hitting the notes, while great singers think of phrases. Phrases become verses and choruses. Verses and choruses become songs. Great singers keep an awareness of that larger story.
Phrasing Keeps Singing Interesting
By changing the phrasing, song delivery can have a different meaning. Have you ever heard a cover song that had a very different feeling than the original? Some cover songs show deeper meaning through emphasis. When you emphasize a word or sound, you are calling attention to it. This will imply meaning and the questions that arise create tension for the listener.
When I learned about phrasing, I put it to the test right away. I sang the line: “I want to thank you….” as “I waaaaaaaaant to thank you.” The person who heard me said, “You sound like Whitney Houston.”
What is Phrasing?
The parts of Phrasing in singing include Dynamics, Onsets, and Offsets, Emphasis, and the “line of the phrase.” Dynamics usually refers to volume. Onset is how you start a phrase, while offsets are how you finish. Emphasis is where the dynamic falls the strongest. The line of the phrase includes the rhythm, whether it is fast or slow.
Dynamics are a crucial part of phrasing. Volume crescendos and decrescendos create dynamics, as well as pitch, emphasis, and tone. Add deliberate soft and loud parts while emphasizing certain words. When stringing together notes, think of them as complete thoughts varying the volume slightly as you go. Harmony vocals are usually less dynamic than melody vocals.
Onsets and Offsets
The way you start and finish a phrase is important. Onsets and Offsets are said to be “clean” with little effect, or “dirty” with exaggerated effect. Music notation may include instructions on phrasing but it is open to the interpretation of the singer.
Line of a Phrase
The Line of a phrase can be staccato, short and detached - or legato, tied together and smooth. In most styles of music, phrasing reflects a natural way of speaking, unless it is intentionally done differently. In general, pauses for air should not break the melody line.
Look for the places where pauses leave room for breath. It is important to not cut melody lines in half or disrupt the way they were written. It’s also important to save enough breath to complete the phrase.
Finding the Natural Phrasing
You can print out lyrics and make notes where the natural pauses are. This is useful when you have a long phrases that you need to get through before the next pause. Plan where you will breathe in advance to be able to smoothly sing the passage. Good breath support is helpful.
Practice your dynamic range by doing vocal exercises that stretch your volume. An example of this is to sing a single letter from soft to loud. Make the transition as smooth as possible.
Listening to Examples of Phrasing
Listen to your favorite singers in the genre of your choice and observe how they use phrasing. It will differ based on the genre and some styles use unusual phrasing intentionally. With some observation, you will notice the phrasing habits of your favorite singers that make their style distinctive.
For a listening exercise, choose a song that has a lot of different cover versions. Compare how the different singers use phrasing on the same song. In some styles, singers perform intentionally with fewer dynamics than in others, such as R&B which is very dynamic. You’ll notice how important phrasing is when comparing different versions of the song.
Listening to the Britney Spears song Piece of Me, you'll notice her "dirty" onsets include vocal fry. She lisps and breathes into the notes on offsets. She uses dynamics not only on words but on individual syllables within those words... The word “rich” has an exaggerated rrrrrrrrr sound. Her verses are very staccato.
Paying attention to phrasing will improve your singing! Good luck!