Most songs have a moment that can be identified as being its climactic moment. More often than not, it’s somewhere toward the end.
Climactic moments are sometimes easy to identify:
- “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon): You can hear the song constantly building, and, like many songs, is really a series of climactic moments, each one overtaking the previous one, until you get to the end of the final refrain.
- “Mandy” (Scott English, Richard Kerr): This became a 70s’ pop formula for ballad songwriters: the constant build to the end.
- “Stairway to Heaven” (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant) Similar to the others, but the build is longer and more gradual, with the climactic moment happening either at the end of the guitar solo, or at the end of the vocal at about 7’20”, depending on what you’re focusing on.
For some other songs, the climactic moment is harder to identify, like “Norwegian Wood” (Lennon & McCartney), “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (Bob Dylan), and “Pumped Up Kicks” (Mark Foster)
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It’s not because there’s no climactic moment; it’s more because the moment is subtle, sometimes happening in the lyric rather than the production.
For example, the surprising line in “Norwegian Wood”, “So I lit a fire/Isn’t it good Norwegian wood,” acts as a kind of climactic moment. An instrumental/production moment just wouldn’t have worked in that song.
In “Pumped Up Kicks”, the moment is even subtler: that little moment of unaccompanied singing as the final chorus repeats happen (at about 3’16”)
Every song usually benefits from having that moment that stands apart from all the other moments. If you find that your song sounds like aimless wandering, a missing climactic moment can be part of the cause.
Take a look at the following list to get ideas for what a climactic moment might be useful in your song:
- A melodic high point. Like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the singer chooses a note a little higher than the one expected, and creates a momentary shot of musical energy.
- A chord progression high point. If you use the same chord progression each time your chorus happens (and you likely do), try coming up with a variation on that progression for one of your final chorus repeats. Just the fact that it’s different might be enough to generate a bit of musical excitement.
- A rhythmic/melodic high point. In The Bee Gees’ hit “You Should Be Dancing“, the drums play a 16th-note fill over higher and higher vocal improvs.
- Silence as a climactic moment. You don’t necessarily think “climactic” when you consider pauses in music, but George Michael’s “Faith” is a perfect example of what a well-placed silence can do when the instrumentation is purposely light and transparent.
- A lyrical climactic moment. I’ve already mentioned “Norwegian Wood”, where we get a shot of excitement that sneaks its way in with a surprising line of lyric, rather than being more “climactically obvious”.
There’s a quirky, funny song from the 70s called “My Girl Bill“, by Jim Stafford. The final line of the final verse is the one that reveals the true meaning of the song. It serves as the song’s climactic moment. The slightly extended chorus that follows that line also works as a climactic moment.
In a bit of reverse engineering, you can listen to hit songs and try to identify where the climactic moment happens. However subtle, there is almost always one that stands out. And in many songs there can be competing moments, where it’s hard to identify the one most climactic moment.
But that’s really not important. What is important is to provide at least one moment, nearer to the end than the beginning, where our musical minds will identify that something exciting has happened with more intensity than the songs’ other moments.
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