Stan Swanson, 11 September 2007

On the communication (and importance) of phrasing in (contra) dance music

I have found some bands and some tunes easy to count and follow phrasing,
whereas others can be hard or impossible.  Sometimes one or more repeats
within a single dance are hard to follow, often when the band is noodling
around and improvising.  Below are my current thoughts on this issue.
Note that I am not particularly musical and have a hard time recognizing
and remembering tunes.  Another reason for my interest is a project I
have to produce MIDI renditions of dance music -- one has to explicitly 
program accents and phrasing, knowing where and how to do it.

-- Dancers need a strong and obvious beat. You can dance for a while
   following the tempo with muscle-movement memory, but resynchronization
   helps most of us (we wander without help from the band).
-- Strong or at least obvious phrasing (at end of 8 or 16 beat/step figure)
   helps the caller and dancers readjust and start the new figure in time.
   (I tend to think of phrases as encompassing 8 beats/steps = 4 bars.)
-- Choice of tunes (smooth, bouncy, ...) to emphasize certain dance figures
   (eg. balances) is a plus, but not as important in my mind as beats and

Communication of phrasing (and beats) is multimodal, and can involve a 
selection of the following (from none to all):

-- tune/melody (knowing where you are in the note sequence; specific motifs
   and their repetition/contrast (say between A and B); longer notes or
   rests, particularly at the ends of phrases(8) or strains (16))
-- harmony: resolution to the tonic (I) at the end of a phrase or strain,
   or to the dominant (V) in the middle of a strain)
-- accent ( accent may be volume or duration (rubatto/swing)...
            in bar, in phrase, of chords, especially at end of phrase)
-- change in volume within a phrase (DM: phrase arch)
-- micro-candences (length of phrase ending notes in tune or chords, presence
   of rests (notated or slight rubato) at end).
-- change in instrumental mix (e.g. can highlight transition from AA to BB,
                               or beginning of tune)

My attempts to discuss this with musicians so far have been frustrating, since
their perception of phrasing seems, to them, to be intuitive and automatic--
they have a hard time articulating what they do (if anything) to delineate
phrases.  Yet some bands manage to do it well and consistently.

My latest idea is that there is a difference in perspective/perception
between musicians and the rest of us (callers and dancers).  The band
has practiced and memorized the tune, whereas most of the rest of us
have not, and will not during a single dance.  Thus the band members know
where they are in the tune (and so where the phrase boundaries are), but
the rest of us must rely on other cues.  We may be able to pick up a
motif, or contrasting motifs between A and B (some tunes lack even this),
but I rely mostly on accents and micro-cadences.

What can/should a band add to the mix of cues so that beats and phrasing
are obvious without reference to the melody?  Musicians may supply some
phrase emphasis intuitively (like a small pause for breath at the end
of several bars, or harmonic cadences at the end of the tune or strain),
but I would be helped by more consistent cues.

[I have been not seeing the forest for the trees: previous focus/hope was of
 finding a single solution, and not realizing the difference in perspective.]