The Good, the Bad & the Early Music Phrase

The Good & the Bad

We all know what a musical phrase is. It corresponds to a sentence of prose, or a line of verse, and we see phrases marked with long, elegantly curved lines in beautifully engraved 19th & 20th-century editions. The phrase is arched, long, sustained, and essentially legato. It curves upwards to the middle, and then descends. We talk of “phrasing towards” a certain note, so that the phrase “moves”, and has a “goal” along the way. And when we come to the last phrase, the final note of a piece often represents a triumphant arrival, perhaps returning emphatically to the tonic, after explorations of other tonalities.

All this is taught in elementary music lessons, so that it becomes part of what we assume to be basic, ‘instinctive’ musicality. But …

The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, (1953)

Although the guiding principle of Early Music is awareness of various different historical aesthetics according to period and country, there are some general trends that distinguish the Rhetorical age (pre-18th century) from the Romantic and Modernist periods. For example, the relation between Rhythm and Emotion changes particularly sharply in the decades after 1800. Read more about this in Richard Hudson Stolen Time: The history of tempo rubato (1997).

The 19th/20th-century aesthetic encourages evenness, homogeneity, continuity during a long phrase. Consistently rich tone, even volume of sound, and continuous vibrato indicate depth of emotion, in the sense of a sustained level of intensity. The most powerful moments are the culmination of a gradual intensification of one particular emotion, to the point of cathartic release.

In that aesthetic, high artistry and nobility of purpose are indicated by bending the rhythm. Lively and steady rhythm is seen as ‘popular’, but inscrutable manipulation of rhythm casts the performer as a ‘Romantic genius’, expressing emotions beyond the understanding of the common herd. 

The Early Music phrase is different

The pre-18th century aesthetic encourages short-term contrasts within short phrases. Quality & volume of sound, vibrato and articulations, the passions themselves change from note to note. Emotion is conveyed by changing (not maintaining) passions (affetti). 

High artistry and nobility of purpose are indicated by the ability and determination to frame these passions within reliable rhythm. Musical polyphony and linguistic complexity are the main indicators along the spectrum from ‘popular’ to ‘high art’ music: composers and performers are equally at home anywhere along that spectrum. Reliable rhythm is one of the fundamental skills by which a performer speaks clearly and persuasively to an audience who are at the same, or higher, social level.

In this aesthetic, the musical phrase is an imitation of the human voice, speaking rhetorically in short sense-groups of a few words. Musical phrases are broken up into short ‘mini-phrases’, like an inspiring leader delivering a passionate speech to a large audience in a big hall, without microphone. In music, as in public speaking, the primary duty of the performer is to deliver the text clearly. Clear and varied articulations of vowels and consonants produce short-term contrasts and a mix of legato and staccato.

In rehearsals and lessons, many of today’s Early Musicians talk about phrases (or shorter musical figures) “going towards” a certain note. In performance, this is often associated with a subtle rubato that accelerates towards the phrase-middle, and then slows up. Some Early Music directors deliberately coach this particular rubato technique. (I have christened it ‘Tube-train rubato’ after the London Underground, where the tracks descend away from one station and ascend again to the next, in order to help trains accelerate and slow down as required).

But I see no evidence of the language of ‘going towards’ in period texts that analyse or teach music and poetry. Rather, there are frequent reminders to maintain the tempo without change. And Cambridge University’s recently completed CHARM project has shown by analysis of elite historic recordings that ‘Tube-train rubato’ emerges in the 1950s, replacing what Prof Nicholas Cook calls early-20th-century ‘Tent-pole rubato’, (slowing towards a meaningful note, then accelerating again, in the way that the canvas of a tent curves up towards the point where the tent–pole supports it, suspends there, and then falls away again).

So if historical sources do not discuss ‘going towards’ significant notes, ‘moving through’ the phrase, and other such indicators of rubato, what do they talk about? If musical time is regular, what else are we encouraged to vary during the phrase, to avoid monotony, and for the sake of expressive subtlety?

Good & Bad

A fundamental period assumption is that music is Rhetorical: it imitates the structures and devices of persuasive speech, in order to muovere gli affetti – to move the passions of the listeners. And if music is like speaking, then the structure of the musical phrase can be compared to contemporary poetry. Accented and unaccented notes correspond to the accented and unaccented syllables of verse: actually, in period sources, notes and syllables are referred to as Good & Bad, or Long & Short.

The regular metre of pre-1800 poetry is the underlying structure that corresponds to the regular Tactus pulse of period music. (See Andrew Lawrence-King Rhythm – what really counts? here). In poetry, Good syllables generally coincide with the underlying metrical structure, for example, in the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s (1609) sonnet:

When I do count the clock that tells the time.

But, as Patsy Rodenburg observes in Speaking Shakespeare (2002), ‘the pure regularity of such a line is relatively rare’. From line to line, word-accents and poetic metre sometimes coincide, but sometimes are in tension against each other, and this is what makes the difference between doggerel and fine poetry. Notice the subtle interplay of word-accents (underlined) and metre (bold) in Richard Barnfield’s line from The Passionate Pilgrim (1599)

 If Music and sweet Poetry agree.

Similarly in period music: individual word-accents may, or may not coincide with the underlying Tactus measure.

So monotony is avoided, the regularity of rhythm is varied, not with rubato, but with varying placement of Good and Bad notes, within a steady measure of time. Read more about the distinction between metre and accent in George Houle Metre in Music (2000).

Principal Accent

The metre of period poetry typically alternates Good and Bad syllables, with the most significant Good syllable (referred to in metrical analysis as the Principal Accent) at the end of the line, where the rhyme might occur. However, this Principal Accent is usually not the last syllable: typically the line ends with a Bad syllable.

To be or not to be, * that’s the Question.

Shakespeare Hamlet

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra Vita

Dante Inferno

Even in these short examples, we see again that not every metrically ‘strong’ syllable necessarily has a Good word-accent. Metre and accent work together in independent counterpoint.

We also see that each language has its own patterns. English uses many monosyllables, Italian has many two-syllable words Good-Bad: piano, forte, mezzo, nostra, vita etc. [Cammin is a poetic shortening of cammino, which shares a typical tri-syllable pattern Bad-Good-Bad with allegro, adagio, sonata etc]

So now we can assemble the structure of a typical Early-Music phrase:

  • The Tactus is maintained with a slow, steady pulse
  • Individual notes contrast with one another in articulation, colour, volume & meaning.
  • Passions change rapidly – for example with dissonance/resolution.
  • Individual notes are Good or Bad, typically alternating Good/Bad and joined Good-to-Bad.
  • The Principal Accent is the last Good note.
  • Phrases typically end with a Bad note.
  • Complete phrases are separated into short ‘mini-phrases’.
  • Unity through the phrase comes from consistent Tactus and sustained thought, not from legato sound.

And in place of that long, elegantly curved phrase-line in thick steady black, we could envisage something more speech-like: fragmentary, multi-coloured, alternating, with its high point on the penultimate note.

 Early Music Phrase


The past is a foreign country; there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language and understood its assumptions.

 Michael Howard ‘The lessons of history’ 1991

In my opening paragraph, I blithely assumed that a phrase corresponds to a sentence. But in period literature, a sentence (terminated by a full stop .) is often the length of a modern paragraph, containing a long succession of clauses punctuated by semi-colons ;. In spoken delivery, within each clause, a good orator would make gaps between each sense-group of a few words:

Speak the speech, * I pray you, * as I pronounced it to you, * trippingly on the tongue: * but * if you mouth it, * as many of your players do, * I had as lief * the town-crier spoke my lines.

Shakespeare Hamlet The Advice to the Players

So in Early Music we might expect to find that short ‘phrases’ corresponding not to sentences, but to short sense-groups, linked together by steady rhythm and continuity of thought into medium-length clauses. Clauses are then separated by cadences (which correspond to semicolons, rather than to full stops). Like semi-colons in period texts, cadences occur very frequently in 17th-century music, but they punctuate, rather than stopping the flow. Steady Tactus drives us over the momentary lull of each cadence, until we reach a full stop, which corresponds to the end of a section.

These are the hierarchical, Rhetorical structures of sentence construction and musical design which are carefully matched to each other in 17th-century madrigals, mass-settings and recitatives. The link between punctuation and musical construction is made explicit in a 17th-century poem in praise of composer Henry Lawes:

No pointing Comma, Colon, half so well

Renders the Breath of Sense; they cannot tell

The just Proportion how each word should go

To rise or fall, run swiftly or march slow.

Thou shew’st ‘tis Musick only must do this…

Henry Lawes

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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.


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