Joni Mitchell

Understanding a Song’s Climactic Moment

Most songs have a “climactic moment”, usually in the chorus, but sometimes in other places, like a song’s bridge. In most cases, you can identify a climactic moment by finding the highest note.

This has been a noticeable trait in music for centuries. You can go back to Handel’s oratorio “Messiah”, for example, and see that high note principle in his famous “Hallelujah Chorus” at various moments of that choral movement, particularly here.

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In pop music, the classic tune “It’s Only Make Believe” by Conway Twitty is a textbook example of a melody made up of a short melodic cell that keeps spinning upward, finding its climactic moment near the end of the melody.

You’ll notice that most of the time a climactic moment will happen near the end of a major section (as I say, often the chorus), but not exactly at the very end of it. It seems we like to hear some kind of resolution or “coming down” of that moment shortly after.

But climactic moments don’t always have to be spots where the melody is highest. There can be several climactic moments in a song, where one of them seems to be the obvious one, but where others also occur.

For example:

  1. A climactic moment in the lyric. You could make a case for saying that the final line of lyric in “Hotel California” is a climactic moment of sorts. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” is a very surprising — perhaps even unexpected — way to end the lyric.
  2. A climactic moment in the instrumentation. Sometimes something surprising can happen in the instrumentation of the song… a silence, which also occurs in Hotel California, but is very effective in “Man of Our Times” (Genesis), just before the final chorus. (It’s odd to think of silence as being a climactic moment, but I really think it does the job.
  3. A climactic moment in the vocal performance. In addition to melodies that have a high point, no doubt something like that iconic scream in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again“.

The concept of the climactic high point can be complex, and identifying a specific moment that you think of as “climactic” in a song is sometimes hard to do. It’s more a case that you can tell when a song is suffering from a lack of climactic moment. For songs that are missing such a moment, there’s little to drive the music forward, and so a song will often wind up sounding a bit listless and aimless.

One more thing to think about: even quiet ballads need a climactic moment, but in quiet songs the concept might be even more subtle. Think about Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” from her “Blue” album. The second half of each of the verse sees the melody soaring higher and higher, building musical emotion and energy. That one’s obvious.

But her song “Hejira” — we hear constant layering of moments that are, in their own way, climactic, but in a much more subtle way. And it’s hard to find any one of them that are primary over the others — though I feel that 5’25” feels climactic to me.

One of the best things you can do as a songwriter, once you’ve created a demo that you’re happy with, is to listen and try to identify any moment that you think is more energetic than the other moments around it. Then see if you can identify one that’s more significant than the others.

For me, it’s okay if I can’t identify one primary moment that serves as the main climactic moment. What seems to be more important to most songs is the fluctuating back and forth of musical energy that comes from all the “competing” moments. Let the audience decide which is more significant to them.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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