3 Pointers for Calculating a Melody's Climactic High Point

Bruno MarsWe know that melodies that just aimlessly wander will kill a song by making them impossible for listeners to remember. Obviously, songs need a captivating contour in order to be successful. Part of that contour is the placement of a climactic high point. This is a part of the melody that seems to be a focal point, a summit, if you will, where all elements of the song appear to be heading. And a successful climactic moment makes it more likely that listeners will return to the song.

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If you analyze the melodic structures of most hit songs, you’ll find that the climactic point happens in the latter half of the melody. Some examples: In Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the word “bridge” is the high point of each verse, the point where melody, harmony, rhythm and every other aspect seem to be dramatically pointing.

The climactic high point doesn’t always need to be literally “high.” For example, the musical phrases of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” start with higher pitches, and the melody descends to cadence in the bottom note of the octave. But Dylan’s phrasing works because the lower ending gives a sense of wisdom to the answer that accompanies those important life questions, “How many times…”

Bruno Mars’ hit single “Just the Way You Are is a perfect demonstration of how to configure a melodic shape to be memorable, making great use of a well-placed climactic high point.

And in most songs where the chorus is constructed of two phrases, the climactic moment should be somewhere in the second phrase. In the case of “Just the Way You Are”, the moment is at the word “Just” from the title.

The chorus melody keeps hitting the A, which works really well compared to the verse melody which is centered mainly a 4th or so below.

Then the occurrence of the Bb as the highest note of the chorus gives a shot of energy to the phrase. The melody, as is typical, then cadences (comes to a rest) below that note, on the tonic.

It’s a perfect demonstration of how to place a climactic high point. Here are three pointers to keep in mind:

  1. Songs can have several climactic moments: the verse can have one, then the chorus, the bridge, etc. In sheer energy, the climactic moment in the bridge may actually be more than the chorus, but the chorus’ moment will usually be more satisfying, being accompanied by stronger progressions. The verse climactic moment is often much subtler so as not to steal the chorus’ thunder.
  2. A climactic high point in the melody should be partnered with a similar moment in the lyric. In “Just the Way You Are”, the high point hits right at the title line, which works really well.
  3. The closer to the end of a chorus melody the climactic moment occurs, the higher the resulting energy. You can use this to help your song’s overall energy level. To build song energy, keep moving your melody upward, and hit that high note as close to the end of the phrase as possible.

You may not have considered climactic moments before, but it’s very useful to look through the melodies you’ve written for your song, and try to identify high points. By doing so, you are basically demanding that melodies have a sense of purpose and direction, and definitely makes them more memorable.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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