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Predictability: harmonic and melodic phrases

The harmonic phrase (the length of a chord pattern) follows the melodic phrase. And the melodic phrase is based on the need to breathe. In other words, you can only sing as long as you have air in your lungs, and the way that you use chord progressions should support that.


Phrase length

The conventional phrase length – melodic or harmonic – is 2, 4, 8, or 12 bars. These are predictable phrase lengths that we hear all the time, and they’re identified by chords that provide a cadence at the end of the phrase.

Here’s an example of a 2 bar harmonic phrase followed by a 4 bar harmonic phrase.


2 bar phrase:4 bar phrase


And here’s the same two harmonic phrases with melody.


2 bar phrase melody


You can tell where the phrase ends by where you find the long note (the second bar and the last bar). The long note is a way of marking the location of the breath. There are always exceptions, but this is fairly standard.



Knowing these conventions allows you to step outside of them. Extending or shortening phrases (say from 2 bars to 3 bars, or 8 bars to 7) can be a nice way to create variation and novelty.

The 3 bar phrase is easy to sing without taking more than one breath; the 7 bar phrase is a bit trickier and may require two breaths. This makes it sound less natural, but you may like the effect. It can provide a sense of urgency.

You can also try extending the vocal line past the cadence. So if the song cadences after 2 bars, write a vocal line that lasts 3 bars. Here’s the 2 bar phrase above extended into the third bar. We expect it to end on the downbeat, but it continues to beat 3.


2 bar phrase extended


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