The Most Important Note

Every phrase has a climax–the point in the phrase to which everything before it leads. Another way to think of it is that some notes are more important than others: the high point is the most important.

Sometimes this could be the highest note! Sometimes it’s the lowest. Sometimes it the place with the thickest texture or the most tension (dissonance before a resolution, for instance). Chances are you don’t need much help finding the high point or climax of a phrase, your musical intuition does that. But if you’re wondering, start by looking for the highest note (pitch-wise). Many times the climax of a phrase is about two thirds of the way through (it goes with that whole golden ratio thing).

Three Ways to Work With the High Point

  1. Aim for it. The overall phrase should be shaped in such a way that the high point is the biggest (loudest) note. This is a general guideline rather than a rule. Sometimes it sounds awesome to understate the high point of a phrase.
  2. Play with the tempo. There’s nothing wrong with a little rubato, and it’s a great way to add emphasis to the high point. Take care, however, that rubato does not become rhythmic distortion. Good rubato still maintains the sense of proportion between the rhythmic values. Also consider how much rubato is needed: too much of a slow down and the piece looses its energy, too little and there’s no effect. In my opinion, the use of rubato is better left to the resolution of the phase after the climax — how to use tempo to get out of the high point and close the phrase, in other words.
  3. Adjust the tone. The guitar doesn’t have as big of a dynamic range as other instruments, but we make up for it with our ability to use tone color. Decide what sort of tone is best used for the high point and go for it. In many cases it’s a full, robust sound, but that’s not always true. Sometimes a sweet, dolce tone is great with an understated climax.

The biggest thing, as with any other musical element, it simply being aware it exists. Knowing where the high point of a phrase is leads to a better interpretation. Think of a phrase as an arch. The first two thirds lead to the climax (the top of the arch), and the last third closes the idea.

Got any tips for finding or playing the high point of the phrase? Leave them in the comments!

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • Allen Mathews

    Hi Christopher, I love the blog, thanks for all the work you put into it.

    For the past while I have been having regular coaching from a concert pianist. He comes from an older tradition and his approach to phrasing is often counter-intuitive but extremely effective at creating emotional connection with listeners.

    One of his general ideas is that it’s more effective to decrescendo up and crescendo down scale passages, and the highest note should almost never be the loudest one. This stems from the goal of always striving to produce the longest line possible and create forward momentum. There are many ways to prolong lines, this being one of them.

    Accenting the highest note (while that is admittedly the most common way to go) announces an arrival, which serves to stop the forward momentum, rather than propelling it forward.

    So how you approach a phrase will be different depending on whether you are sculpting it in isolation, or with an agenda in mind to create a larger structure (be it a section, movement, or entire large work).

    Phrasing is a multi-faceted art, and there are many differing opinions. I thought I would share one here.

    Allen Mathews,
    Portland OR