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Musical phrase length – get irregular

If you are into pop music, chances are you were not concerned about phrase length. Or maybe you felt it and handled it without knowing what you were working with. That in itself doesn’t lead to problems, but there’s a reason why a lot of pop music sounds uninteresting, to put it mildly. It is because songwriters play it safely, and put everything on a rather strict grid. In other words, their musical phrases are (too) regular.

Are you too regular?

Musical phrases are not unlike phrases of spoken (or written) language. A phrase is a coherent melodic line that feels like a complete whole on its own. It’s something that you could sing with one breath. Okay, so what’s a regular phrase? A melody line that lasts through 4 measures (or sometimes only 2), or it’s multiples. It’s hard to even notice that, it has become so common. And that’s where the problem arises from. Something that’s so common can’t be made to sound fresh, unique and interesting.

Grid trouble

regular phrase

Let’s see. This first example has a full 4 measure phrase. Even though the melody ends in the beginning of measure 3, the n00bie composer felt the need to go all the way through the 4 bars. Working with a drum machine or unaltered drum samples urge you to do that. But what are you gonna fill that empty space with? If it’s a vocal song, your lyrics has ended early, and you either need to go with some filler chording, or you can come up with an okay sounding riff, but your energy is gone anyway.
irregular phrase
The second example dares to end the phrase in the very measure the melody ended in. It’s clever enough to keep up the interest without ending up with too much idling spaces. And you didn’t get too reckless with the rhythm either this way. Yes, it’s an irregular phrase.

Quickie for the win

irregular phraseWhat does the third one do? This lil’ fucker ends right where the melody ends. Well, almost. It throws in another quarter rest, but that’s it. It converts the last bar to a 2/4 one. No space to fill. It’s another kind of irregular phrase. Of course it might sound weird to some people, but come on, it’s not all that weird. Besides, interesting is what we wanted, so STFU. Make sure though, that you sort of “sell” this kind of stuff with rhythmical accents. That ending rest is a good place to put a snare hit, for example.


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