Creating a Climactic Moment in a Song’s Melody

Though many listeners aren’t consciously aware of it, most of their favourite melodies have a climactic point. Here’s how to create one.

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Rihanna - We Found loveWhether people are aware of it or not, the melodies of most hit songs have a moment that can be described as the climactic high point, a moment where the melody, chords, lyrics and energy all come to a focus. For verse-chorus songs, that moment is usually in the chorus. For verse-bridge songs (“Hey Jude”), it’s often in the second half of the verse. A climactic moment is something that’s prepared, so to speak, so you can usually hear it getting closer. Climactic moments don’t usually involve a sudden leap upward in the melody. You usually see the melody gradually creeping upward, with one note acting as the pinnacle.

A climactic moment is usually the highest note of the melody, but not always. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a good example. The word “all” that happens at the beginning of the chorus, in the line, “We could have had it ALL,” is arguably the climactic high point. And not just because it’s one of the highest notes. There are two other important reasons: 1) that note is held longer than most other notes of the song, as well as 2) it’s harmonized with the tonic chord.

You’ll find that climactic moments such as the one in “Rolling in the Deep” tend to pull listeners in and keep them listening. Other styles of music, such as the various dance forms, don’t have the same requirement for a climactic high high point. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” has a high note (Db), but it’s not well placed to assume the role of a climactic moment. But the dance-style nature of the music makes a climactic moment less important to the success of the song.

Here are some tips to creating a climactic moment in your songs:

  1. Place the moment in a strong position. Climactic moments need to be in a structurally significant location. There are several possibilities, depending on the song form:
    1. Verse-chorus songs: The start of a chorus.
    2. Verse-chorus songs: The start of the 2nd half of the chorus melody.
    3. Verse-only songs (including verse-bridge): The start of the 2nd half of the verse melody.
  2. Allow the highest (or close to highest) note coincide with the tonic chord, or with some other chord that resolves to the tonic.
  3. Allow the melody to resolve a bit lower after the climactic high note. In other words, climactic moments work well if there’s something following it. It’s like looking at a picture of a mountain: it’s most effective if you can see the slope that leads upward on one side, and then the slope that leads downward on the other.
  4. Songs can have more than one climactic moment. It’s possible, for example, to have a climactic moment occur in a chorus, and then be outdone by a new climactic moment in the bridge (middle-8) or other section. You could make the case that “Hey Jude” has a climactic moment in the 3rd phrase (“Remember to LET her into your heart…“), which is outdone by a 2nd (rather surprising) moment at the “OH” after the repeated last word, “Better, better, better…”

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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4 Comments

  1. Roger

     /  December 14, 2011

    Hey Gary,

    First off, I love your daily articles about songwriting. When the conversation regarding songwriting comes up with friends or musicians I ALWAYS either quote you or “give lessons” using your articles. (I have a binder with about 200 or so pages of your material as well as the e-books).

    But I gotta question…under the heading “Place the moment in a strong position”, did you mean in #2 “verse-bridge” instead of “verse-chorus”? Or, am I misunderstanding you because you also state that in verse-bridge songs, the climatic moment should happen in the 2nd half of the VERSE?

    Could you please set me straight on this ’cause it’s going to affect (or is it effect) my next song :-)

    Thanks.

    Roger

    Reply
    • Hi Roger:

      No, I did mean verse-chorus. In other words, with verse-chorus songs there are two common ways to create a high point: either at the start of a chorus, or at the start of the 2nd half of the chorus melody. For verse-only songs, I’ll clarify that that means verse-bridge songs as well.

      I’m really pleased that you’re enjoying the blog, and thanks for writing.

      Cheers!
      -Gary

      Reply
  2. Delex

     /  December 20, 2011

    We love you! =)

    Reply

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