Question & Answer Phrasing

Weekly Newsletter #39

May 5, 2022

When you improvise a solo or make up licks on the spot, what are you focusing on? 

Many players will say, “technique, picking, legato, tone, volume etc.” 

All these things are certainly important, but the most crucial element of all is phrasing. 

Learning how to create meaningful phrases that people want to listen to is actually not that difficult of an exercise. There are concrete steps you can use to achieve this every single time. 

This means no more guessing as you play. Instead, you know exactly how to hook the listener with every lick. 

Whether you intend to become a better improviser, songwriter, solo player or really, any type of musician at all, quality phrasing is the most useful thing you can learn to do on the instrument. 

What Is A Musical Phrase? 

A musical phrase is a small idea that is most often an incomplete thought. 

Much like a vocal phrase in the English language, a musical phrase conveys an idea, but it’s an unfinished idea. 

If I said, “I’m thinking about something important”, you’d most likely want to know more information. You’d like to know what I was thinking about. 

I conveyed an idea to you and you instinctively wanted to know more. 

This is exactly how quality phrasing works within a musical context. 

In order to entice the listener to want to know more, you must bait them in using a musical phrase that elicits a desire to pay attention to what you have to say. 

This means whatever you’re saying with your guitar must seem important and worth listening to. 

The most useful and common examples of quality phrasing within music is a Question & Answer phrase. 

Question & Answer Phrasing 

Just as in a conversation between two people, a question demands an answer. 

Asking somebody, “what are you doing today?” creates an opening for a response from the other person. 

Now, within music this can be done between various players in a band, but can be even more effective if done by a single player. 

Learning to ask a question with a guitar lick and then follow that up with an answer lick is how you can successfully achieve quality phrasing every single time you improvise; essentially having a conversation with yourself using the guitar. 

In order to ask a successful question, you must understand what makes a musical question. 

A question is an unresolved statement, one that requires a response in order to complete the thought. 

-Check out this VIDEO for an in-depth discussion on Q&A phrasing.- 

Consonance & Dissonance 

In music there are two main categories of sound: consonance and dissonance. 

Dissonance is most often associated with tension, instability, or a feeling of being unresolved. 

Consonance is usually associated with resolution or stability. 

The best way to use consonance is after something dissonant. Using dissonance to create tension allows you to resolve that tension with a consonant sound. This creates the feeling of “going home” after something tense or unstable. 

Within a musical scale there are various degrees of consonant and dissonant chords. The most consonant chord is always the I chord, while the most dissonant chord is most often the V chord. 

Alternate terms for consonance and dissonance within a musical scale are the terms Tonic and Dominant. 

Tonic refers to the “home” chord or the I chord, while Dominant refers to the V chord. 

In the key of C major this would mean that the I chord is C and the V chord is G7. 

When you play a G7 chord, it sounds unstable, like it needs to move somewhere...that somewhere is home, or the C chord. 

There are of course exceptions to this rule and various cadences and deceptive resolutions that one can use, but generally speaking this is the relationship between tonic and dominant (or consonant and dissonant chords). 

So to recap all this: 

Consonant = Tonic = I chord = home = C 

Dissonant = Dominant = V chord = tension = G7 

How Can You Use This To Phrase? 

Since dominant chords create the dissonant tension that demands a resolution, this will be the basis for asking the question. 

In order to ask a question, you can simply play a series of notes within the scale and end those notes on any note within the dominant V chord. 

Taking G7 as an example, the notes within this chord are: G - B - D - F 

To ask a question it would be a great strategy to end on one of these notes. 

Now to make that ending note seem important you want to try to avoid playing it within the body of your phrase, and instead save it for the ending. 

Giving away the question note too early lessens the effect of the question. 

If we were playing in C major pentatonic we would have only five notes: C - D - E - G - A. 

Out of those notes, only two are part of the G7 chord; this limits our options for ending a question to the notes D and G. 

The good part is that this limitation doesn’t affect our ability to play meaningful phrases (and the limitation can be easily removed by using a full major scale instead of just pentatonic). 

Check out this simplistic question using only three notes: 

The question is simply an E repeated over and over again followed by a C and it ends on a D. 

We are using the C major pentatonic scale and playing the first three notes of that scale, but we save the D for last because ending on that note (which is part of the G7 chord) signifies tension and a lack of resolution. 

This same exact strategy works for the answer as well. 

Most often the easiest ending note for an answer is the root note of the scale. In this case it would be C. 

However, you could also end on any other note within a C major chord, but most often the root note sounds the most finalized and the most consonant. 

Check out the answer to the previous question: 

With the exception of those first two pickup notes, the answer is nearly identical in structure. 

Repeating the D many times followed by an E, D and ending the answer on C. 

Notice how in both the question and answer, the ending note has been saved for last. 

Playing that note earlier in the lick would defeat the effect of the question and the answer. 

Expanding This Concept 

Obviously, these small examples are very simplistic and do not convey the infinite utility of this question and answer concept. 

The idea of ending your question on a dominant note and ending the answer on a tonic note can be expanded to massive degrees. 

You can apply this to any scale, key, mode and song and you will always get consistent results. 

However, to start applying this today, begin by sticking to a pentatonic scale.  The safest and easiest way to get the question and answer phrasing is to end your questions on the second degree of the scale (in the key of C that is the note D), while ending your answers on the root note. 

As you gain more familiarity with planning out your approach for the target note of your choice you can develop more sophisticated and musical ideas leading up to that final note. 

Refer to the VIDEO and TAB for ideas on how to expand this concept to suit your playing. 

Stop guessing and start phrasing! 

-Max Rich