The phrase "Only the last note matters" or "the first and last" or "the first last and highest", etc... come up repeatedly throughout musical education.

What, technically is going on when someone says that "If you play the right note at the end of a "run"" then everything will sound good.

Clearly, it is demonstrable that one can play all kinds of notes in a phrase and make it sound good, but is it simply due to the final note being "correct"?

Obviously the last note is the last note heard and probably most prominent in the mind and it should obviously not "suck".

What is the theory behind this and what exactly is the "last note"? Is it simply the very last note of a phrase/run? The last emphasized and sustained note of the run that fits the with the final chord of the phrase? etc...?

What exactly is going here? The explanation that "one can play anything thy want if the last note is good" is probably an exaggeration, but it does have some truth to it... but it is not a well defined statement since many other elements at play in real music are ignored(The phrase, chords, style, etc...).

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    I'm not sure these phrases and ideas are as common as you think! If I google for Only the last note matters, this page is already the first hit (for me), and I couldn't quickly locate examples of the other ideas either. Could you perhaps add a couple of links to what you mean? – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 12 '16 at 6:46
  • I think you've already answered your own question. The first and last notes are often important because they stand out in memory. But it depends. This is another example where people shouldn't get hung up on trying to define "most important", or "best", or whatever. Life, and music, is more complex than that. – Scott Wallace Apr 12 '16 at 9:18
  • This question needs a better title. It tells us nothing about the question. Remember that you are not publishing for a newspaper here, the title isn't meant to attract readers. – user1803551 Apr 12 '16 at 19:50
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    "come up repeatedly throughout musical education" Can you back that up with some educational sources? – Michael Curtis Aug 14 '17 at 20:40
  • I've only ever heard this in the context of a teacher trying to reassure a pupil who hasn't practised nearly enough, and where there's considerable doubt whether they can even manage to play the last note correctly. The teacher is desperately looking for something positive to say... – Brian THOMAS Aug 15 '17 at 11:46

The way I heard the phrase is "as long as you get the beginning and ending right - what happens in the middle doesn't matter". This is usually used in reference to a whole song.

I would say that some of the theory that explains how this concept relates to a whole song would also apply to a solo in the middle of a song. I am not aware of any controlled clinical studies to prove or disprove it. So any answer would be educated speculation. Here is mine.

The beginning triggers prior knowledge and recognition in the case of a cover song and lets the listener know what song is coming and if they want to listen. In case of an original - or song the audience has never heard, the beginning is where they will subconsciously decide if the song is something they actually want to listen to.

The ending of a known song is memorable in many ways. Most folks remember how a song ends because most songs set up musical expectations and resolve back to home (the tonic) and the endings are well anticipated and sometimes dramatic. They provide a sense of resolution which will not occur if you end on the wrong note or the wrong chord.

The same applies to a solo. The beginning establishes the starting point and should transition smoothly from the end of the preceding section of music. Often it will establish the key or tonicize the lead run melody. The beginning will set up an expectation for a satisfying resolution back to the tonic established by the preceding section of music as well as the beginning of the lick.

Ending on the wrong note (that the audience was not expecting) would leave them hanging. Some well known pieces may end on an unexpected note as a signatory element of the song. In that case the ending would be memorable for its lack of resolution and therefore would set a particular expectation and the audience will notice if you miss the anticipated note.

It has been observed that the beginning and endings of lectures, speeches and even movies are more memorable than what happens in between. That is probably because the beginning is where our brains tune it to determine our level of interest and try to predict what the movie, lecture, play, speech, etc. will be about (and if we are interested in continuing to watch/listen).

The ending is always anticipated and thought about continually throughout the middle of the song, movie, speech, etc. If you are watching a movie or reading a novel you are constantly thinking to yourself "I wonder how this is going to end". And the main reason you keep reading the book, watching the movie or even listening to the song is so you can discover how it ends. That's why if someone starts to tell you about a movie you will probably say "don't tell me how it ends" - because if you know how it ends - you have no interest in watching the middle.

I imagine music is much like any of the other things that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And for many of the same reasons, it's the beginning and ending that are most important to the consumer of the presentation - be it song or verse.

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  • While I agree with a lot of what you said, on the surface at least, I think the reference to tonality seems to simply the psychological factors involved. Surely, The same types of psychological forces involved a listener of tonality applies to the same for non-tonality? Also, Your example about unexpected endings doesn't jive to well with the tonality explanation. You can't have it both ways... tonality is the resolution to the expectation, but it's ok not to fulfill that expectation if your Paul McCartney(or whoever) – user2691 Apr 12 '16 at 2:40
  • . It sounds very analogous to a fishing story "Add worm(beginning)... wait... Sink hook(ending)". The waiting part is the "interesting" part and it seems to be ignored. – user2691 Apr 12 '16 at 2:40
  • @AbstractDissonance I refer to those rare songs where the writer intends to surprise the listener and not give them what they expect. If a song becomes famous everyone knows that the ending is part of what makes the song unique and they would notice if you fail to do it justice. – Rockin Cowboy Apr 12 '16 at 3:03
  • Yeah, but that's a default when covering songs. Basically you have to play it the way it goes by default. I'm more interested in how the composer was able to get "away" with it. Basically you said it would be a "let down" if the composer didn't go with the expectation. Why are some composers able to go against the grain and it work(not be a let down)? – user2691 Apr 12 '16 at 3:45
  • @AbstractDissonance Okay - sure. Now we are off the question about playing the piece and on a new discussion about composing. That's cool. Audience prefers to hear resolution and does not generally like surprises. But composers will often end a piece on an unexpected note for a particular emotional effect. The first time someone hears it they are like "whoa that's it?!" Then once they process why the composer did what they did and how it left the listener feeling a certain way, they appreciate the cleverness and next time they hear the piece they know what they are in for. – Rockin Cowboy Apr 12 '16 at 15:54

In some cases, there will be some notes that can be seen as more important than others for all sorts of reasons to do with the structure of the melody, harmony, and dynamic flow of the song. It is, of course, important to get these important notes right!

Which notes are the most important ones would be a much wider question. Sometimes these important notes may be the first and last in a passage, a run, or the entire song. In many other cases they won't be, in which case "Only the last note matters", or the other variants, would be very poor advice indeed! It's certainly not a good general principle to follow.

As a slight aside, I'd be careful of dismissing any notes as 'unimportant' when it comes to rhythm. Any sufficiently loud note in the wrong place can disrupt the rhythmic flow.

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  • Maybe 'subordinate' is a better word rather than 'unimportant?' – Michael Curtis Aug 14 '17 at 20:53
  • @MichaelCurtis. Quite possibly...rhythm can be seen as hierarchical, and yet often it may be one or two of those subordinate notes (like an upbeat 16th) that is the most significant in giving a rhythm its distinctive feel. – topo Reinstate Monica Aug 14 '17 at 21:02

That exact phrase is a bit misleading. Normally, one punctuates phrases by having a significant harmonic event (like a cadence of some type) at the end. The beginning and ending of phrases tend to be better remembered than tones in the middle. (For non-tonal music, something interesting may be a rhythmic event rather than a harmonic or melodic event.)

Listening to lots of music should be helpful in getting an idea of what is happening.

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When this applies to fast runs, this advice makes much more sense. Runs have so many notes that most listeners won't hear every note in the run as a distinct "entity." Instead, what they hear is one note, a bunch of movement, and then another note. So the two notes at the beginning and the end are the only important notes to consistently play correctly!

Furthermore, the notes in the run usually have some kind of important relationship with the harmony. Most typically, they are either an arpeggio or scale over the current chord. As a result, the first and last notes will have the strongest relationship with the harmony, and getting those notes wrong can make the whole run sound sour. In contrast, missing a note in the middle of the run will just sound like a passing tone.

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You're all taking this far too seriously. It's just a glib statement that an uneducated audience will forgive you a lot if you don't fluff the beginning, the end or crack the high note. Heck, they'll even forgive you that if you're pretty enough! It's not a musical analysis of what needs to be practiced, what doesn't matter.

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