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Musical Punctuation

For music to be effective, its form needs to be clear. There can be no doubt about where a verse begins and a chorus ends.

We can use arrangement to achieve this clarity. A beginner composer thinks of harmony, rhythm and voice-leading as independent of each other, but when they work together, the arrangement can underline the boundaries between phrases, sections and entire parts of a piece of music.

This is called punctuation. Like punctuation in text, musical punctuation helps us make sense of where one part ends and another begins, and the relationship between these parts.

Punctuation is about using arrangement to clarify form. As far as punctuation is concerned, arrangement follows form.

Today let's take a look at this passage from one of Mozart's string quintets and analyze how punctuation makes it easy to follow. First we'll look at the harmony, rhythm and voice-leading seperately, before adding it all together to see their combined effect.


First we need to know what kind of form we're dealing with.

The passage consists of two phrases that make up a period. The first phrase is called the antecedent and the second phrase is called the consequent. You can think of the antecedent as a musical question, and the consequent as a musical answer. The antecedent ends unresolved, so the music has to go on to the consequent to help bring it to a close.

Now let's look at how we can use arrangement to clarify this relationship. For the clarification to be effective, we need to clarify both the full period as well as its constituent phrases.


Let's start with the chord progression:

Phrase 1: Eb – Bb7 – Cm7 – F7 – Bb7/Ab I – V7 – VIm7 – V7/V – V7 Phrase 2: Eb/G – Bdim7 – Cm – Fm7/Ab – Bb7 – Eb I – bVIdim7 – VIm – IIm7 – V7 – I

Notice how the first phrase ends on a dominant that doesn't get to resolve until the next phrase has started. That way, the phrases are effortlessly glued together.

However, notice also how it doesn't resolve in a perfect cadence. The tonic has the third in the bass and therefore doesn't sound completely final. That's a good way of making sure the piece doesn't end prematurely. There's yet more tension to be resolved.

The passage continues toward the tonic at the end of the period with the strong harmonic motion of full-fledged dominants like Bdim7 and Bb7 or through fifth intervals like Cm to Fm.


Now let's look at the contrasts in articulation. In the first couple of bars in each phrase, the strings play staccato, and in the last part of each phrase, they hold long notes instead. The staccato notes provide forward motion while the long notes provide a momentary rest.

This change in note duration signifies the end of the phrase.

The rhythm also elegantly resolves the harmony, with the dominant long note «ebbing out» into a shorter note tonic chord, intentionally undercommunicating the cadence so the piece doesn't end prematurely.

The harmonic rhythm is also doubled in speed near the end of each phrase (bar 3 and 6 respectively). This increases tension and the sense of motion toward the endings.

Still, with the rhythmic contrast and subito forte (suddenly strong) dynamic, this moment gets imprinted into the listener's mind and becomes a «landmark» that helps the listener orient themself in the piece more easily.


It's worth noting that the cello's part starts in a middle and high register at the start of the two phrases, gradually moving downward toward the lower register in the cadences. The difference in sensation betwen high bass and low bass gives the phrase endings more fullness, which, again, helps give a sense of punctuation to the piece.

Putting it together – Musical punctuation

For music to be effective, harmony, rhythm and voice-leading have to work together.

We can build tension in harmony, tension in rhythm and tension in the voices all at the same time. Each element contributes with its own unique kind of tension, and when all these tensions overlap, the music starts to feel like it has a mind of its own.

What I want you to discover by studying this passage is how all these elements build toward the end of the antecedent and the end of the consequent in bars 4 and 8. This helps delineate them from each other.

That's how we build music that sounds confident. Music that knows what it is and what it wants, because the form is clearly understood and communicated by the composer.

Final words

Mozart is known for his punctuation, and the clarity of form that results from it. The passage we've analyzed today is only the opening melody of a larger movement, but as you can see, every detail is carefully thought out. It's by applying all the tricks in the book we help every part of the music live up to its full potential.

By using these different strategies of punctuation, you will make your music clearer and easier to grasp.

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