Many people describe music as a language. If that is so, what are the words? My answer to that questions I came to through the study of Indian Ragas, where there is very explicit theory about this matter. There are many definitions of Raga. One definition that Ali Akbar Khan gave is “some combination of notes that charms the mind.” So, basically a musical word could be anything that catches your attention in its own right. Within styles of music, though, there are very specific phrases as well as abstract outlines that can be defined as the ‘words’ that make up those styles. I’ll call these the ‘licks’ for now.
I’ve found it tremendously useful to identify and atomize these ideas. They give me an idea of the essence of what I’m trying to capture, and give me a lot of flexibility to play with things in more complex musical situations. My sitar instructor Dr. Allyn Miner told me that one famous sitarist she interviewed claimed that one should be able to tell what the Raga is after hearing only one note. Some find this claim pretty extreme, but it is not at all extreme to claim that even a lot of untrained listeners can tell what musical style is being played after hearing only two or three notes. Thus, one rule of thumb I use to identify the core phrases of a style is this…
A core phrase is one which can categorically identify the style with 2-5 notes
I look for these things. I play certain melodic fragments out of context and I ask myself: ‘would I know what kind of music this is if I only heard these two notes played this way?’ The way you play them is also important! They have to have the right bends, the correct amount of time spent on each note. There are a lot of nuances that make core licks what they are. They are not so rigid. In fact, they can be manipulated and stretched quite a bit. That being said, their boundaries can all be broken, and those boundaries are actually what make each style unique and beautiful!
My Blues Raga Guitar Series explores this idea in great depth. That’s your best resource to start with!