Like me, you have probably been frustrated composing phrases that sound “off”. Maybe they feel like they ended too soon, or don’t sound complete. If this has happened to you, keep reading. This week’s post is all about musical periods. Understanding the period will help you further your knowledge of simple themes and definitely make a huge difference in your composing. If you read last week’s article, Musical Phrases Unleashed, then you will have been introduced to the musical sentence.
The musical sentence is an 8 measure theme, that consists of two different phrases (the presentation phrase and continuation phrase), and accomplishes the formal functions of presentation, continuation and cadential.
Today we are going to look at the next main theme type – The Musical Period.
What are Musical Periods?
Musical periods are similar to the sentence. They are most commonly 8 measure themes, split between two phrases. Musical Periods contain both an antecedent and a consequent phrase, which will be discussed below. Listen to the model period below.
The Antecedent Phrase
The antecedent phrase, like the presentation phrase in a sentence, presents the basic idea. But instead of restating that basic idea to cement the tonality, it is followed up with a contrasting idea, that leads into a weak cadence. This weak cadence is most frequently a half-cadence, but in some circumstances it could be an imperfect authentic cadence. We’ll talk about the cadences a little later on.
The purpose of the antecedent phrase is to establish the tonality of the theme. This is primarily accomplished through tonic prolongation harmony and the cadence.
Cadences, Tonic Prolongation Harmony… What are you talking about?
I haven’t talked much about harmony yet, and this post is not going to cover most of it (that will be an article in a few weeks). But I do want you to be aware of just a few things. First, let’s talk about a little something called functional harmony.
The Levels of Harmonic Understanding
There are three levels to understanding harmony:
- Sonority – understanding how the notes sound together to make harmony.
- Harmonic Relation – Understanding the relationship between certain chords within a key.
- Functional Harmony – Understanding how those chords relate to form of the composition and the overall tonal scheme.
Harmonic Understanding Level 1 – Sonority
The first is, just how you’d think, the way certain notes sound when played together. This is the most basic type of harmonic thinking. This level of thinking about harmony does not take much training, mostly because our brains are geared to hear and distinguish harmony. Listen to these chords:
Harmonic Understanding Level 2 – Harmonic Relation
At this level, you start to understand the way harmonies relate to one another. At this level, you understand simple things like Tonic, the triad built off of the first scale degree, is the “home” harmony, and the other chords somehow relate to it. You know about cadences, like the half-cadence (HC), which ends on a dominant chord (V):
or a perfect authentic cadence (PAC), which has a root position dominant (V) followed by a root position tonic (I), ending on the first scale degree:
But there is something missing in your knowledge. You know how to connect the chords, but do you know why they behave the way they do, or when you would use a certain chord versus another.
Never fear… Functional Harmony to the rescue!
Harmonic Understanding Level 3 – Functional Harmony
Understanding Functional Harmony requires that you understand the first two levels. You have to know how a given chord sounds. You need to be able to tell what chord you are listening to in relation to the tonic harmony, and how to connect those chords.
But functional harmony furthers your understanding, by introducing not just how the chords sound, but how the chords develop the music and specifically the form of the music. Without a solid understanding of functional harmony, you may understand what a composer is doing, but not why.
You may be able to say for instance, that a composer is writing something in Db major, and everything seems good, but then all of the sudden, there is an A major chord. That doesn’t fit with standard diatonic harmony, it must be doing something else in the piece… but what?
… You’re going to have to wait, we are getting off topic. The functional harmony post will be coming up in a few weeks. Back to the period.
The Consequent Phrase
The consequent phrase will follow up the antecedent with the basic idea. It frequently elaborates a little on the basic idea from the antecedent phrase, and then continues with another contrasting idea, which may or may not be different from the first contrasting idea.
The consequent commonly shows the same characteristics of a continuation phrase from a sentence. Once again these are:
- Harmonic Acceleration
Where the consequent differs from a continuation phrase, is the repetition of the basic idea from the antecedent phrase. Listen once again to a sentence and then a period. This example is built off of the same basic idea. Try to hear the form.
I am going to take a step back for a second and talk about what I mean exactly by formal functions.
When we are looking at form, we want to try and classify what we are listening to in the simplest way, without losing all of the necessary detail to describe it. We can label phrases, and show harmony, but that is only half the battle. The harder part is determining what those phrases are accomplishing for the composition. This is where formal functions come in.
“Formal function is the specific role played by a particular musical passage in the formal organization of a work. It generally expresses a temporal sense of beginning, middle, end, before-the-beginning, or after-the-end. More specifically, it can express a wide variety of formal characteristics.” Caplin, William Earl. Classical Form.
A Period’s Formal Functions
Funny enough, the formal functions accomplished by the period are… Antecedent and Consequent. That should make it easy enough to remember.
- Antecedent – Expresses the basic idea, establishes tonality, and gives partial closure to the opening phrase with a weak cadence.
- Consequent – Repeats the basic idea, confirms the tonality or modulates to a subordinate key, and gives full closure with a stronger cadence than the antecedent.
That concludes our discussion of musical periods. Next week we’ll round off our discussion of the musical theme types by discussing the small binary and small ternary forms. These will allow us to finally talk about larger movement forms, interthematic functions and ultimately, where we are going with this Symphony.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions about this, or any of the other topics. I am here to learn just like you. If I don’t have an answer to your question, then I will find it.
I have something exciting coming up with the Art of Composing Society. I don’t want to give away all of the details yet, but it will be a beginner’s course in composition, going over most of what I have talked about in the last few weeks, with more examples, exercises, all wrapped up in video lessons. This will only be available to the mailing list though, so sign up now.