The Importance of a Song's Climactic Moment

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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FireworksWhen you design something artistic, you’re usually looking to establish a focal point, some element that will pull people in to your art. For interior designers, that focal point may be a painting, a fireplace, a window – some item that serves as the central important object toward which everything else in the room points. Songwriters have the same task, but because songs exist in time, that focal point will be a climactic moment, an instant that says, “right here is what it’s all about.”

Some climactic moments are subtle, because they may have more to do with the quiet power of a well-chosen word or phrase. And in such songs, the climactic moment may be at different times for different people, such is the subtle nature of these kinds of songs. Think of “Fields of Gold” by Sting, and you’ll get what I mean.

Other songs, of course, hit you in face with glorious power, but these are often the songs that get ridiculed over time. Generally, people feel embarrassed when they can be emotionally over-manipulated by a song. We’re talking about songs like “My Heart Will Go On”, sung by Celine Dion, and almost every big hit Barry Manilow had in the 70s.

But every song needs something that serves as an emotional focal point. Like a hook, people will keep coming back to a song that grabs their emotions and makes them feel something. And when they can identify one moment that seems to stand out from the others, listeners will wait through an entire song to experience that moment again.

The best climactic moments in music are, in my opinion, the subtle ones. There’s a natural feel to a climactic point that just seems to happen, almost in spite of itself.

If you feel that your song is missing that special something, here are five tired-and-true ways to inject a climactic moment into your song:

  1. Try a Key change. Be careful with this one. The semitone upward modulation (C  F  G  C  Ab  Db  Gb  Ab  Db) is a manipulative way of getting attention, and can sound awfully corny. But there are other ways to change key that provide a climactic moment (C  F  G  C  Eb  Ab  Bb  Eb)
  2. Insert a pause. This can work well toward the end of your final chorus. Let the music build, insert a pause before the final line, and finish the song quietly. It provides an obvious climactic moment.
  3. Temporarily remove instruments. Like the pause, reducing instrumentation for a chorus, or even just part of a chorus, creates a climactic moment when all the instruments pile back in for a final repeat.
  4. Insert a solo instrument or instrumental gesture. Climactic moments don’t need to be short events; they can last for several measures. Add solo guitar or other instrument one of your final choruses to build its energy above what came before. It’s a very natural way of creating a higher energy level.
  5. Improvise a higher melody. If your final chorus is just more of the same, try embellishing its effect by singing above where the melody was. Art Garfunkel does this at the end of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

You need not limit yourself to one of these devices per song. Adding a solo instrument right at the moment of a key change is quite common. But my advice is to remember to be subtle. Most songs don’t need to slap the listener in the face to have effective climactic moments.

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