Lyric Phrasing

I frequently receive vocal scores which have slurring that seems to be at odds with the lyrics themselves:

Essentially, this boils down to too many conflicting symbols being used simultaneously to represent similar instructions. A little historical context might help break down why we seem compelled to use these conflicting instructions for phrasing in vocal music:

In early vocal plainsong / plainchant, the music conformed to the lyrics, rather than the other way around. A poem or prose has an inherent pace and flow. For the most part, these early compositions were for all intents and purposes a form of musical speech –  rhythms and (approximate) durations mirrored lyric phrases as if they were being spoken. Barlines reinforced the natural breathing points or natural phrase breaks, which were typically uneven – subservient to the length of the lyric phrase. If meters would have been shown at each logical phrase point, you might say that each phrase was its own “time signature”.

Eventually, vocal music began to conform more and more to the same rhythmic meter / container and conventions as instrumental music. Composers began to fit vocal  phrases into the master rhythmic constraints of the score, rather than the other way around. Remnants of the old notation style were kept; early scores which combined vocal and instrumental music showed each vocal syllable with a separate flag or beam; arguably a pretty, though rather verbose display style combining elements of plainsong and modern instrumental music.

Beaming in vocal scores eventually evolved to show the rhythmic pulse within the prevailing meter, as in instrumental music, rather than notes shared by a single lyric syllable (melisma). At the same time, both instrumental and vocal music became generally more rhythmically structured, and as part of this, barlines evolved into static beat markers, which phrases can cross. Phrases in instrumental music could be shown clearly with slurs, so it might be natural to assume that this would also apply to vocal music, which now most commonly shared the beaming used for instruments.

And it is at this intersection that vocal notation gets crowded – instrumental-style slurs on top of syllabic slurs – instructions that essentially cancel each other out. The lyrics themselves define the basic phrasing structure in a vocal line; instrumental style slurs here are redundant.

Sometimes you will see dashed slurs above the staff to show “instrumental” phrases along with syllabic slurs. While this practice is not recommended, at least this method clearly identifies these two types of slur markings as being separate from one another.

The recommended method for phrasing modern vocal music is to use standard beaming divided according to the time signature, and where two or more notes are shared by a syllable, use syllabic (sometimes referred to as melismatic) slurs.

Punctuation of the lyrics is used to clearly show phrasing, rather than instrumental style slurs. Periods, commas, or semi-colons are used to clearly define phrases.

However, in an interesting twist, a lot of modern vocal music is bereft of capitalization and punctuation. As might be expected, in these cases, composers tend to use more instrumental style slurs. It would appear that slurs are being used in place of the missing punctuation marks.

This in itself forms an interesting conundrum – on the one hand, the composer is using a modern poetry technique which aims for a dynamic use of language; on the other, the tempo, rhythms, pitches and dynamics of the notation associated with each syllable are already determining factors in the performance outcome. The lyrics are only open to performance interpretation within the structure of the musical rhythms and pitches. In this context, the lack of capitalization and punctuation is actually at odds with the composer’s intent.  Why not display the inevitable in the least ambiguous way possible?

Recommendation? Use beam groupings to show the beats defined by the time signature, along with syllabic slurs.  Make the lyric phrasing intent clear via the use of  capitalization and punctuation marks for the lyric text. Always reinforce the phrasing by using the information available in the lyrics themselves, and avoid giving the vocalists any additional, possibly conflicting phrasing information.


with thanks to Peter Hallock

4 Replies to “Lyric Phrasing”

  1. New subscriber to the blog! Interesting commentary — I think it’s something I’m not overly sensitive to because I am both a pianist and singer (often simultaneously, though both usually suffer for it!) and therefore used to seeing both kinds of phrasing. I didn’t personally find the example you provided to be confusing, but in either case, I think your recommendation at the end is a good one: One really shouldn’t need to use the instrumental style slurs, when there are better, less risky ways of doing it.

  2. Weird, I’ve never seen an example of extra slurring like the one you show here! Certainly I agree with you that such instrument-style slurring has no place in vocal music. It’s just poor composition technique not to plan (and of course notate) rests for breathing.

    1. Thanks, June! You’re right – I think the “nested” slurs in the example are probably less common than the use of instrumental slurs that match the orchestra, but are frequently at odds with the sentence structure of the lyrics. (Of course, punctuation marks always clarifies phrasing, too.)


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