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Melodic Phrases

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: Some activities to help students practice identifying phrases in a melody.

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Phrases in Songs

Materials and Preparation

  • This activity is appropriate for elementary or middle school students.
  • If you would like more information on melody and melodic phrases before you do this activity with your students, please see Melody.
  • You will need an audio tape or CD player. Alternatively you can have the children supply the music by singing songs together that they all know. (Simple songs like "The ABC Song", "Happy Birthday to You", or "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" work just fine for this activity.) You can plan on doing both, if you like.
  • Gather some recordings of songs that your students will find appealing, or decide what songs you will have the students sing together. Folk music, church hymns, and traditional children's songs all usually have well-separated, easy-to-spot phrases. Some popular music and Classical music also works well, but some has more complex melodies that are more difficult to separate into melodic phrases.
  • Have tapes ready to play at the right spot, or know the CD track number that you will be using. Or, if it would be helpful, have copies of the words to the songs the students will sinig.


  1. Remind your students that language can be broken down into separate words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. (Remind them of what they have learned about these concepts in language arts.) Tell them that music is like a language: people compose music to say something to other people or make them feel a certain way. In the language of music, notes are like the letters of an alphabet, and they are grouped together into musical ideas that make sense to our ears, just like letters are grouped together into words, phrases, and sentences. (If you like, you may explain here that very short musical "words" that appear often in a piece of music can be called motifs.) Groups of words that make a whole idea that makes sense are called a sentence; groups of notes that make a whole musical idea that makes sense are called phrases. Just as you pause at the period at the end of the sentence, a melody also often pauses slightly when it comes to the end of a phrase. The phrases of the music are also grouped together into sections (a verse can be a section, for example) that are like paragraphs or even chapters. (See Form in Music if you would like your class also to study the larger divisions that are present in music.) Tell them that in songs, musical phrases often (but not always) line up with the sentences or phrases in the text. Share the two examples in Melody if you like.
  2. Have the students sing or listen to a song. You only need to study the first verse and refrain: even though the text changes, the musical phrases will be the same for each verse.
  3. Play or sing the song again, asking the students this time to identify the first, second, third, etc. phrases, perhaps by singing them separately, raising their hands with the correct number of fingers at the start of a phrase, or just saying "two" at the beginning of the second phrase. You may have to sing or play the song several times to give them a chance to decide.
  4. This should be a group activity, with reasonable disagreements allowed. Unless the phrases are extremely clear, some people will hear shorter sections of the melody as being distinct phrases, while others will naturally group the shorter sections into longer phrases.
  5. Some questions to encourage further exploration: Are the phrases about the same length (the same number of beats), or are some much longer or shorter? Is a melodic phrase ever repeated exactly? Repeated with some changes? Do some phrases feel more final than others, as if they have a stronger ending? Do some feel like they are a question waiting for the next phrase to answer them?

Phrases in Instrumental Music

Materials and Preparation

  • If your students do "Phrases in Songs" successfully, let them try this one at your next session.
  • This time you will definitely need a tape or CD player and some recordings.
  • Try to choose instrumental music that also has singable melodies with clear, separated phrases. Bach and other Baroque composers are usually not a good choice, nor is most modern classical music or music based on shorter motifs, or music that is too complex.


  1. The procedure is essentially the same as for the previous activity. Let the students hum phrases to you if they can, or simply signal when they hear a new one.

Suggested Music

Music that has clear phrases is very common, but there is some music in which phrases are harder to identify. In general, steer clear of Baroque counterpoint (Bach, for example), modern Classical music, the more complex styles of jazz, and late Romantic composers such as Mahler and Wagner. Folk songs, pop musics (including rock and country), children's songs, hymns, marches, dances, ragtime, opera arias, and symphonic music that has a clear melody are all good places to look. In case you're still not sure where to start, here are some suggestions that should be easy to find.

Some easy-to-find Instrumental Music with Clear Phrases

  • Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", or other ragtime tunes
  • The Largo movement of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9
  • The "March of the Toreadors" from Bizet's Carmen
  • The "Waltz of the Flowers", "Chocolate (Spanish Dance)", "Tea (Chinese Dance)", or "Trepak (Russian Dance)" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker
  • Almost any popular march

Vocal Music with Clear Phrases

  • This is so easy to find there is no point in my listing particular pieces for you to look for. Most folk and popular vocal music has clear, separate, easy-to-hear phrases, as do most songs from musicals.

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