Identifying Musical Phrases

West Coast Swing Online Musicality & Timing

When you learned WCS, you learned to distinguish downbeats and upbeats. In musical terms, the downbeat and upbeat are quarter note rhythms: they take up a quarter of a measure, which is the division used in musical scores. A single measure of music for WCS songs takes four beats: a downbeat, an upbeat, another downbeat, and another upbeat. (There are exceptions to the previous sentence with things like 12/8 meter, but we’ll set those aside for the moment.)

WCS music is generally phrased over two measures, or eight beats. Each eight-beat phrase is the musical equivalent of a sentence. Most verses, for instance, have a natural break every eight beats. For instance, listen to Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel (Amazon affiliate link):

(Sentence:) Hey pretty baby with the high heels on
(Sentence:) You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known
(Sentence:) You’re just a product of loveliness
(Sentence:) I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress

You can hear the musical sentences continue throughout the song. Now it’s time to count them.

The Drill: Listen to a song phrased in perfect eight-beat phrases, like The Way You Make Me Feel. Count the eights: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, [repeat]. Your goal is to train yourself to hear and feel the beginning of a new set of eight.

If you don’t have previous musical training, it will take a while to master this drill. That’s ok! Being able to quickly identify the 1 of a new phrase is extremely important for musical phrasing, so it’s worth spending time on this skill.

Bonus Variations: When you can consistently count by 8s to a song, then try counting while pointing your finger on the 1. When you can fluently point on each 1, you’ll be ready for the next drill!

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