Fray zing… or how to get the Em-PHA-Sis right. I believe the most important element of phrasing is feeling: feeling the pulse, feeling into the ‘one’ to sing (swing) around it, feeling the sentiment and meaning, feeling as it subconsciously informs our breathing, and feeling into the contours of the melody and the effect of the song’s harmonic foundations.
Phrasing is something that, if done well, will be completely unnoticeable. If a singer’s phrasing is out of whack, forced, unnatural or jerky… it’s very obvious. No matter how good the tone or pitch there’’s an awkwardness, a disconnectedness, a tension.
Bad phrasing sounds rigid, nonsensical, robotic and soul-less. With good phrasing you completely understand and lyrics and are moved by the emotion of the song (just as the singer is). There’s more syncopation, flexibility, honesty, swing.
Phrasing is inextricably linked with breathing. Long, smooth (legato) phrases will calm and soothe both singer and listener. Short chopped-up phrases and words will have the opposite effect –– and sometimes this is exactly what the subject material requires. In Paul Brady’s The Island verses have split phrases “they say the…… skies of Lebanon are burning / there’s mighty…… cedars bleeding in the heat” replicating anxious breathing and mirroring horrific subject material. In the chorus however, “I want to take you to the Island / and trace your footprints in the sand,” are long, seductive and comforting phrases as the emotion shifts.
When we speak fluently in our mother tongue, phrases tend to be long and the sound continuous. Listen to people speaking in a language you don’t know. Notice how fast they can talk and how they don’t seem to come up for air? Conversely, notice how many uncomfortable and frustrating gaps occur when you’re speaking a language you’re not fluent in. Each word is deliberate and the flow and meaning are frequently lost. This demands a great deal of patience from the listener.
When we sing we falsely presume that more breath is used than in speech. Not so. Secondly, we tend to pre-emptively panic and become insecure about our breathing (due to this supposed dependence on air), so taking sneaky little alcoholic breaths in the middle of a phrase… sometimes even in the middle of a word! We don’’t need to do this (and it sounds like a choir of six year olds singing “A…… maaaay…… (inhale) zing graaaace”.
See how much of a song you can sing in one breath (I can, for example, usually get to “I once was lost…” in Amazing Grace) and, how much you can speak before you absolutely need to inhale. John Campbell is the sensei master at this. You sound more like John as you keep talking past the point where you wanted to inhale. This is (sadly rather now, was) no doubt due to his enthusiasm for the topics he wholeheartedly communicates.
Natural phrasing means being as speech-like as possible. It helps to read your lyrics aloud, as if you were reciting poetry. This way we can discern: the most important words (to emphasise, accent and lean into); the pace and meter of the phrase (fast or slow and drawn out); the contour of the phrase (e.g. questions tend to inflect upwards at the end); and the rhythm of delivery (long or short note durations). There’s a melody in every spoken phrase and there’’s also a rhythm to it. Because we sing a written melody we still have tone, timbre and rhythm to play with.
The ONLY way to find out where to breathe, or how to phrase, is to sing the song… repeatedly! Ever sung karaoke when you don’t know the song? There’s no indication from seeing the words on screen as to when/how they should be sung/phrased. Furthermore, you can learn a song inflection by inflection as it is sung by the original artist (or cover), but your own phrasing allows you to really get inside the story/narrative.
Phrasing has its own body language. Body language supposedly constitutes the bulk of communication. Stable ‘front foot’ phrasing stresses the first beat of the bar to denote surety (as with children’’s music). Unstable ‘back foot’ phrasing that starts on unstressed beats, gives a feel of confusion/unsettledness. Observe Don McGlashan‘s Anchor Me with its rolling ‘lost at sea’ verses contrasting with the more certain anchored emphasis on the ‘one’ in the choruses.
In jazz, phrasing is the first thing we play with. I don’t think I’ve ever sung a song the same way twice. We free-up the phrasing not only to personalise, but as a ‘first-step’ in learning how to scat. (First play with the rhythm or the words but stick with the melody, then start playing with the melody, remove the words and…… shazam! You’re scatting.)
Lean into/give more weight to/accent the most important word(s) in each phrase. Repeatedly speaking the lines for maximal meaning will show you which words are worthy of highlighting.
Accordingly, the rest of the phrase will fall around the important words like folds of fabric on a well draped toga. It’s just as important to not stress an unimportant word as it is to give the important words their glory. (In Cohen‘s Famous Blue Raincoat the important words fall on the first beat of the bar. You can strip it back to just being the telegram/haiku version; ‘Four…… morning…… End…… December…’ etc.) Experiment with starting phrases in different parts of the bar. Extend endings too.
Due to apprehension, or distrust in our sense of rhythm, we destabilise ourselves into not knowing where to come in or how to phrase the lyric. Listen rather than impose. Don’t kill a song by losing its pulse, but don’’t let defensiveness freeze you up and over-intellectualise the process either. Bow down in reverence, surrender and humility to the pulse.
Feel the one! Walk and sing. Allow your footsteps to provide a click track. Practice to a metronome. (Some people find they distract themselves by externalising the beat with tapping or finger clicking…… find what’s best for you.) See the bar lines as a jungle gym you play around –– the stronger your sense of the ‘one’, the more body weight it can support –– the more fun. Playing with phrasing without feeling the ‘one’ is like building a house on liquefaction.
As a rule of thumb it’s better to be behind the beat than ahead. We have all the time in the world, just as we can talk really fast. Bill Withers uses two bars in one verse that he sings five syllables over, in the next verse, the same two bars fit 16 syllables, easily. You’ve got wiggle room but needn’t take so many liberties that the song is compromised –– if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
As songwriters, try not to let clunky phrasing ossify. Iron out the phrasing of a song well before you record, or gig. If you’ve always sung it with dodgy unnatural phrasing, you’ll need enough rote learning practice of the ‘new’ good phrasing to rewrite over the ‘old’ program in order that it becomes second nature.