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date: 29 November 2020

Articulation and phrasinglocked

  • Geoffrey Chew


The separation of successive notes from one another, singly or in groups, by a performer, and the manner in which this is done. The term ‘phrasing’ implies a linguistic or syntactic analogy, and since the 18th century this analogy has constantly been invoked in discussing the grouping of successive notes, especially in melodies; the term ‘articulation’ refers primarily to the degree to which a performer detaches individual notes from one another in practice (e.g. in staccato and legato). This distinction between the two terms was recommended by Keller (1955); but articulation in a broader sense is sometimes taken to mean the ways in which sections of a work – of whatever dimensions – are divided from (or, from another point of view, joined to) one another.

Articulation and phrasing represent some of the chief ways in which performers, and consequently listeners, may make ‘sense’ of a flux of otherwise undifferentiated sound, and convert clock time into musical time. In tonal music in the narrower sense, they are (with tonality and thematic organization) two of the chief elements contributing to diversity within organic unity; and they are the elements for which the performer bears the most direct responsibility. Clearly, they are important to the analysis of music. Yet phrasing theory is a relative newcomer to music theory, and still occupies a somewhat peripheral and problematic position within it. This may be because the intricacies of articulation are difficult to notate and are generally transmitted orally rather than in comprehensive notated form; they ought, perhaps, to be as amenable to ethnomusicological analysis as to the document-based methods usually employed. Moreover, there is scarcely any consideration of small-scale articulation in traditional theory, except insofar as this contributes to phrasing; only recently have analysts and those in the field of performance studies begun a belated exploration of its role in musical expression. Consequently phrasing theory has been formulated largely in terms of the linguistic analogy implicit in its terminology (phrase, sentence, period), rather than in terms of the vocal and instrumental techniques, such as bowing and tonguing, that shape small-scale articulation....

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Schweizerische Musikzeitung/Revue musicale suisse
Early Music
Studia musicologica Academiae scientiarum hungaricae