Musical phrasing refers to the way a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music to express an emotion or impression. A musician accomplishes this by interpreting the music--from memory or sheet music--by altering tone, tempo, dynamics, articulation, inflection, and other characteristics. Phrasing can emphasise a concept in the music or a message in the lyrics, or it can digress from the composer's intention. For example, accelerating the tempo or prolonging a note may add tension.
The bow can express the affections of the soul: but besides there being no signs that indicate them, such signs, even were one to invent them, would become so numerous that the music, already too full of indications, would become a formless mass to the eyes, almost impossible to decipher. I should consider myself fortunate if I could only get a student to hear, through a small number of examples, the difference between bad and mediocre, mediocre and good, and good and excellent, in the diversity of expressions that one may give to the same passage.-- "Nouvelle Méthode théorique et pratique pour le violon". Paris, Naderman (c. 1803)
"There are two schools of thought on phrasing," says flautist Nancy Toff: "one more intuitive, the other more analytical. The intuitive school uses a verbal model, equating the function of phrasing with that of punctuation in language. Thus, said Chopin to a student, 'He who phrases incorrectly is like a man who does not understand the language he speaks.'"
Problems linked with an analytical approach to phrasing occur particularly when the analytical approach is based only on the search for objective information, or (as is often the case) only concerned with the score:
The reliance on the score for information about temporal structures reflects a more profound analytical difficulty. Structural information gleaned from the score is visually apprehended and as such is predisposed to visualist models of structure. These models are premised on symmetry and balance and on a timeless notion of "objective" structure. [...] Temporal and aurally-apprehended structures are denied reality because they cannot be said to "exist" in the way that spatial and visually apprehended structures do. [...] Musical investigations exhibit the Western prejudice toward visualism in the dependence on visual symmetry and balance. Information about structure from listening experience is suspect because it is considered "subjective" and is opposed to "objective" information from the score.-- F. Joseph Smith