Don’t Play The Notes – Play The Phrases

Playing music - it's just like acting

By Mattie O'Boyle

Don't play the notes, play the phrases

In grade school, I was told to read in phrases, until I came to a punctuation mark.

Here’s my definition of music: Music is the organization of sound and silence to produce certain emotional or physical effects in the those playing the music as well as anyone listening or dancing to it.

Looking at music in that light makes me think about playing music as an actor must approach their work in a play or a movie. Let’s take that analogy and see how it may help us learn how to play music.

Let’s zero in on the sound aspect of acting – performing the script. Actors need to memorize their lines and then deliver them on cue and with feeling. So they read their parts and practice their delivery, just like musicians memorize the music and practice playing it.

Now here´s the important point: In grade school, I was told to read in phrases, until I came to a punctuation mark. My teachers stressed that we should not read word by word, let alone letter by letter. We needed to focus on the complete thought in each phrase in order to grasp it fully.

Do you think actors read the letters in the words? Do they speak each word separately with equal weight? Don’t they speak in phrases?

And so do musicans! And we need all the same tools that actors need to shape meaning in our phrases. We might uses accents, we might slur into a phrase or out of one. We might cut a certain part of the phrase short to add emphasis or elongate it to add a different color or feeling.

How do you have to say “To be or not to be” and transmit the feeling of anguish? What about melancholy? It’s not just speaking in phrases that brings the dialog (and the music) to life, it’s how you deliver each phrase.

Taking the metaphor one step further, I would say that we could equate notes with letters. Actually, that seems logical, because notes in American English actually have the names of letters! 

So if we follow our logic through, we know that musical notes are only important as very basic building block. We don’t need to focus on them, just as actors don’t pay any attention to the letters in a word.

In reading, after letters, words form the next organizational building block. In music, we could say that melodic groups of a certain number of beats would be like words. In many styles of folk and popular music in Europe and North America, that number of beats is often three or four. But, actors, when they perform dialog, don’t recite words, they recite phrases, and, I would argue that frequently in music phrases don’t always correspond to to all the notes in these three or four beat organizational blocks.

Let’s listen to the chorus Buffalo Springfield’s hit For What It’s Worth.

How many phrases do you hear in the lead vocals in those four beats of “Stop, children, what’s that sound?”

You can tell how many I hear, because I wrote out the sentence with punctuation marks. How would you punctuate those words?

Now let’s dig deeper, how would you “say” those words on your instrument? What feeling would you want them to convey? How could you manipulate the sound of those phrases to reinforce that feeling?

And how many phrases do you hear the saxophone play in the first four beats of Big Mama Thorton’s Ain’t Nothing You Can Do? How would punctuate what you hear? How would you play them? How would you want them to feel?

Now try Marcus Martin’s version of the fiddle tune Happy Hollow. How many phrases do you hear in the first few beats?

Here is a screen cast that shows how I am hearing it:

don't play the notes play the phrases

So remember, playing music is just like acting – don’t play the notes, play the phrases!

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