One of the toughest parts of creating anything is figuring out how to start. The biggest issue for me is that there is just so much I want to write about, say, or do in a project that I get overwhelmed and many times end up pushing it off. There’s our answer: limit the scope of your project.
Say you want to start composing (that’s what I’m working on!), but you find yourself not really sure where to start because there’s an infinite world of sonic possibilities at your fingertips. Find a way to restrict those possibilities.
So now you’re sitting in your room talking to yourself about styles you could compose in, and you say something like, “I like waltzes; they get me dancing or at least swaying in my seat. I’ll write one of those!” There’s your first set of restrictions: you have a time signature (3/4) and an accompaniment style, but that still leaves a lot open.
This is where the (only somewhat) helpful advice of others comes in: mimic a composer you like. How many times have you heard that without those who mean well actually explaining how to do this? Let’s go a little more specific: start by mimicking a single piece that you like.
This will give you a frame. It’s like Mad Libs, but for composers. You can take the chord progressions, the overall form, or solely the narrative structure of the piece and fill it in with your own music.
For this project, I wanted mimic Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor, Op. 69 No. 2 (for this post, we’re gonna focus on just the first 16 measures):
I noticed a lot of repetition in the piece, and I wanted to explore what keeps this piece from getting boring (or maybe it does to you) and how I could use it to make my compositions and performances more interesting.
The use of repetition actually clues us into larger structures (music theorists really love their metaphors about architecture) in the piece, and this is where we can use a little music theory to not only see where repetition occurs but better understand its function a little better, so we can translate that into our own compositions as well as treat each repetition uniquely as performers and hear the nuances of each as listeners.
Review of Phrase Structures
“Phrase structure” is a music theory term that refers chunks of music, such as periods or sentences. If you’ve taken an undergraduate-level core theory course, you may be familiar with these terms, but a review won’t hurt. I’m specifically drawing on William Caplin’s work from Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven for his understanding of the purposes behind processes in music.
Note that Caplin’s book is on composers of the Classical era, not the Romantic that Chopin was part of. These structures were a prominent feature of Classical music, which is what Romantics grew up listening to, so they still play a role in Romantic music, but the rules get bent a little more.
Sentences and periods both are made up of smaller pieces.
Sentences are marked by immediate repetition, one idea repeated with nothing in between, which forms the “Presentation” before spinning off into something else, the “Continuation.” The Continuation’s function is to lead off toward the final cadence of the formal phrase function (the full sentence), which can be accomplished by making rhythm (or harmonic rhythm) speed up, take the basic idea and rip it to shreds, squish things together, interesting stuff.
Instead of only repeating the basic idea once, composers of the Classical period and beyond frequently repeated it one more time (so a total of 3 basic idea iterations) but had it disintegrate at the end and trail off into the continuation. It’s really interesting because it blurs the line between Presentation and Continuation, and Chopin uses this technique (called the “Rule of Three” shown with Greek α that turns into the Continuation, β) in the B Minor waltz:
If you look at the bottom level of brackets in this illustration, you’ll see two very similar sentences separated by what I called a Half-Cadence-like figure (because there is an entire book called What is a Cadence? in which theorists argue about the nuances of cadences, so some might not treat this as a cadence, but for our purposes I am treating it as a half cadence).
This shows us a period structure that’s actually got two sentences inside it. This is where it gets good because phrase structures can nest just like this. Periods place a contrasting (or just different) idea in between repetitions and are marked by having a cadence before the repetition.
The beginning of the second Sentence (measure 9) begins the same as the first sentence, so there’s the repeat of the basic idea for the larger Period. These two repetitions are separated by contrasting music (the Continuation of the first Sentence) and a weaker cadence (Half Cadence), and the whole phrase structure (the full Period) ends with a stronger cadence (a Perfect Authentic Cadence).
Chopin disguises this final cadence with caesura fill, a common practice to show that the piece isn’t fully finished, but this is where we’ll stop the analysis today.
Using Chopin’s Phrase Structure for Composition
Now that we’ve analyzed the overall structure, we can use the phrase structure to help us compose within a framework. We start really small with the basic idea of Chopin’s Sentence.
If we reduce this down to the two most important notes (by taking out neighbor tones, passing tones, escape tones), we are left with a high F♯ and the A♯ below it, with each spanning a measure. So if I want to use this to frame my own composition, I just have to pick two notes and fill them in with non-chord tones.
F♯ and A♯ serve important roles of the dominant and the leading tone, respectively, but that might be getting really specific, so I’m personally leaving that part of this exercise open. I’ll stay in B minor, but I’ll do something a little different: I’ll pick B and A♯ (the leading tone, to reinforce the minor-ness).
Each gets a measure, so now I just add in some connecting notes, and I get something like this:
Then I just repeat that, but you’ll notice that Chopin actually moved to a B in measure 4, so I’ll switch notes too, in my fourth measure.
Since Chopin used the Rule of 3, I’ll do the same thing and start the basic idea again before moving into the continuation and ending with a half cadence.
So now we have a full sentence, 8 measures of music, half of which repeated with slight differences. Then we repeat that process for the second sentence (ending in a PAC), and the full 16 measures comes to something like this.
You don’t have to have a complete understanding of music theory or phrase structure in order to use a favorite piece as a model, but it does help to understand the purpose of each kind of repetition, and I’ve only just scratched the surface in this post.
Phrase Structure for Performers and Listeners
There is a direct connection here between composing within a framework and looking into phrase structures, but what does this knowledge give us to think about in performance?
If you have a quality piano instructor, they’ve likely told you to make each repetition sound different. Maybe the first time you play loud, the second time soft. Maybe you play staccato once, legato next. But understanding phrase structure gives us a more nuanced look into the purpose each repetition serves.
For the Rule of Three, each repetition builds and builds until it disintegrates into the Continuation and leads to the cadence. So when you perform a Rule of Three, a way to show your understanding and emphasize this building of tension would be to crescendo each time or to build tension by getting softer each time, as long as you’re attending to the purpose of the Rule of Three.
For the repetition in a Period, you might play it more exaggerated like playing the Antecedent forte and the Consequent piano or switch up articulation like I mentioned before. And when you have a Sentence within a Period like in the case of this waltz, you could start the first Rule of Three piano, build that up, and when you get to the second Sentence (or Consequent of the larger Period), you could begin mezzo-piano and build up even more from there. Or do the opposite and decrescendo.
Of course, don’t ignore the composer’s dynamic markings, but these are just things to think about as a performer.
As a listener, this knowledge will first enable you to not get so bored with a repetitive piece. It will also let you listen deeply, so in the Rule of Three, you’ll learn the basic idea in the first two iterations, and when it falls apart at the end of the third time, you’ll really hear it. You may even be like those deep classical musicians who fall out of their chairs when stuff like that happens.
Additionally, it will let you chunk the piece into bigger phrases because you understand them, and you’ll be able to remember more of the piece, and when a large section returns, it’ll hit you even harder.
Concluding Thoughts About Phrase Structure and Musicianship
Music theorists repeat ad nauseam how learning theory makes you a better musician (it does!), and I hope this post helped you see one aspect of this. I also hope it wasn’t too confusing, but if you have any questions please email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below!
If you are interested in more of this type of theory, definitely check out William Caplin’s Classical Form.
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.