I have noticed that some music, particularly music rock music played on guitar, often has passages that start lower in the register of the guitar (Or other), and increase pitch as the passage progressive, usually building up tension.

Is there terminology to describe music that starts in the higher register of the guitar (or other instrument) and progresses downwards in pitch as a motif in a passage of music, or entire song?

(P.S: I suppose another way to think of it, is that guitar passages often start in keys that are easily played closer to the head-stock of the guitar, that is, the lower notes progressing higher as the passage moves forward.)

  • 1
    are you talking about changing in register or changing keys? "start in keys". change of keys is called modulation, but not sure if that is what you are talking about or if you just mean the performer changes the register they are playing in.
    – b3ko
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:50

3 Answers 3


I would caution against thinking too hard and trying to re-invent the wheel; we would just call this an ascent or descent. If you want to be really fancy you could maybe say something like a "registral trajectory," but come on now; that's just silly :-)

A relatively new field in music theory is called "embodiment" (or "embodied music theory") and it discusses the physical connections to music performance. It's possible you could discuss locations on the guitar neck from an embodiment standpoint, but when it comes down to it, you're just talking about an ascent.

Imagine a painting where the far right of the canvas uses only dark reds. We wouldn't really need to come up with a name for that dark red patch; we can just describe it as what it is: a dark red patch that may or may not fit with the rest of the painting.

Typically in scholarship we only feel the need to dedicate a new term if it's a common, innovative, and influential new tactic. If the dark red patches in paintings started to appear in 1863 and an entire school of French artists from ~1860 to ~1900 used dark red patches in their paintings, we'd probably have a name for it.

But turning back to music, sometimes things go up, sometimes things go down. Unless there's a clear trend that's a result of it, we can probably be safe just calling it an ascent or a descent. You could always modify it by describing it as a "chromatic ascent," or maybe as something "descending by thirds," but that's about as specific as we tend to get in this case.

  • So you're saying that a passage or song in which there is a general motif of descent dominating the music, it is said to contain many descents?
    – user47327
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:53
  • I think so; check out, for instance, The Beatles' "A Day in the Life"; in my experience, we would just call this an ascent.
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:20
  • Your "dark red patches" analogy reminds me of musical features like the Mannheim rocket.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 19:30
  • @Dekkadeci Oh, great example. It's all about ubiquity!
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 20:00
  • Interesting read, but from my point of view wrong, since there is an established term, see my answer.
    – guidot
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 15:03

Actually there is a German term Rückung (I suggest "tonal center shift" as rough and free translation; Wikipedia seems to offer chromatic modulation) which means repeating the same theme a semi-tone or full tone transposed. It is different from modulation, since the target key is completely unrelated to the source key. It is frequently used e. g. in Schubert songs, where the effect is sometimes repeated several times.


Ascent, moving up, or descent, moving down, describes both moving up or down while staying in a single key or mode, but can also apply to key or mode changing and in fact you can even modulate up or down and continue to ascend or descend as the music moves forward. Therefore Ascent or Descent usually refers to movement within a scale or key, where as modulation usually refers to movement up or down of a tonal center, key, or mode.

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