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Near-source observations show that earthquakes begin abruptly at the P-wave arrival, but that this beginning is weak, with a low moment rate relative to the rest of the main shock. We term this initial phase of low moment rate the seismic nucleation phase. We have observed the seismic nucleation phase for a set of 48 earthquakes ranging in magnitude from 1.1-8.1. The size and duration of the seismic nucleation phase scale with the total seismic moment of the earthquake, suggesting that the process responsible for the seismic nucleation phase carries information about the eventual size of the earthquake. The seismic nucleation phase is characteristically followed by quadratic growth in the moment rate, consistent with self-similar rupture at constant stress drop. In this paper we quantify the properties of the seismic nucleation phase and offer several possible explanations for it.