Creating Climactic Moments in Song Melodies

Most songs have several climactic moments, and where you place them can be crucial to a song’s success.

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Frank Sinatra - Come Fly With MeA song’s climactic moment is hard to define, but it’s usually fairly obvious when you hear it. That’s because a climactic moment isn’t just a melodic issue. In fact, a climactic moment may actually occur when a melody isn’t at its highest point. In reality, climactic moments in music happen as a result of interplay between melody, harmony and lyric. Once you’ve got a song working well, you’ll notice that the climactic moment often plays a big role in its success.

A climactic moment can actually be happening when the melody is quite low in pitch. Basically, you can make the case that the end of every major section of a song (the end of the verse, the chorus, etc.) represents a climactic moment, even if it’s a small one. Again, this is a difficult thing to define, and it’s often best to listen to an example.

One of Frank Sinatra’s biggest hits, recorded more recently by Michael Bublé, “Come Fly With Me,” is a great example. Written by Jimmy Van Heusen, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, the melody demonstrates a shape that’s not all that common in popular music styles: a melody that keeps descending as it progresses. The song is in ABA form (a melody is presented (“Come fly with me, let’s fly…”), then moves on to a new melody (“Once I get you up there…”) before returning to the original melody (“Weather-wise it’s such a lovely day..”)).

Interestingly, the verse melody of “Come Fly With Me” ends with its lowest notes. But that’s not to say that the verse (the A-section) ends unsatisfactorily. You hear a coming together of a melody with great structure, chords that move enticingly back to the tonic chord, and the lyrics offer symmetry with the return to the “Come fly with me” line.

But that’s not the song’s main climactic moment, so ending melodically low won’t cause problems. And in fact, the melody ending low as it does seems to create a sense of expectation; you want to hear more. You can tell the song has more to offer, because you subconsciously are looking for some sort of move into the upper register.

That movement upward happens at the end of the return of the A section, when the melody jumps up an octave and finishes with the song’s highest notes.

Because the same moment in the first A-section was low, it creates a very satisfying moment to have that upper octave appear as the melody ends.

Climactic moments aren’t the kinds of things that audiences are acutely aware of. Most people can describe that they like to hear a sense of excitement in a song, and some may even be able to identify that that moment should happen closer to the end of a melody than the beginning.

Once you’ve got your song written, it’s worth the time to go back over it and try to identify where, if at all, an audience would perceive a climactic moment. It doesn’t need to be earth-shatteringly obvious. But somewhere toward the end, there should be some moment where the melody moves upward and the other song elements “come together” to produce a good sense of excitement.

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