The term vocal phrasing in music has multiple meanings. Vocal phrasing starts with the composer of a song. The performance vocalist herself will execute this composer-designated vocal phrasing to greater or lesser degree. A performance vocalist may also, however, add an additional layer of vocal phrasing to obtain specific effects in the execution of a song.
In association with a song’s lyrics, vocal phrasing refers to each segment of a song that makes up a complete thought or “phrase.” The same song may have some single-line vocal phrasing and some multiline vocal phrasing when considered in terms of lyrical vocal phrasing. For example, in the well-known hymn “Abide with Me” the first refrain, or chorus line, which is the same as the title line, represents a complete thought. However, the second half of the first verse requires four full lines to make up a complete thought or vocal phrase: “When other helpers fail,” “and comforts flee,” “help of the helpless” “Lord, abide with me.”
Vocal phrasing in the melodic sense refers to the structure of a note sequence that supports specific lyrical phrasing. To the composer of a song, note sequences themselves represent a kind of language. This language made up of musical notes, musical meter, pauses or rests in between lyrical or musical phrases and in some instances the harmonics of two or more notes working together has its own grammatical structure in a sense. A songwriter, therefore, will work out a melodic structure for a song that involves “phrasing” of note sequences as well as “phrasing” of the actual words for a song.
Lyrical and melodic vocal phrasings have interactions. The more traditional the material, the more inclined it is towards regular phrasing rhythms. For example, a modern country song like Trace Adkins’ “Just Fishin’” employs irregular structure compared with such traditional bluegrass standards as “Uncle Penn” or “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” or even a traditionally-styled contemporary song such as Kenny Chesney’s “Better as a Memory.” The closer the interaction between melodic and lyric phrasing, the more straightforward is the execution and the greater is the ease of determining composer intention for lyrical phrase inclusion. In reviewing the hymn “Abide With Me,” interaction of lyrical and melodic structure suggests the composer actually meant the first two lines as one phrase though the first includes a complete thought. The fact that remaining verses require the second line to complete the thought supports this conclusion.
Vocal phrasing also refers to the means by which the singer gives a particular expression to a song. This includes the fundamental natural pauses indicated either by the lyrical phrasing or by the melodic phrasing such as formally designated rests. It can also include such things as the application of additional stops within the song’s phrasing structure to provide optimal breath control. This has particular importance in the execution of a song that stretches a vocalist’s natural range. The more readily a song’s overall lyrical and melodic phrasing support vocalist execution in this sense of the term vocal phrasing, the more likely a vocalist will find the song straightforward in performance. Conversely, extremes in the underlying lyrical or melodic phrasing result in a song that vocalists, overall, regard as difficult in performance. “The Star Spangled Banner” exemplifies a song that many vocalists regard as a difficult performance piece because of the nature of the underlying vocal phrasing structure.