Every phrase has a climax–the point in the phrase to which everything before it leads. Another way to think of it is that some notes are more important than others: the high point is the most important.
Sometimes this could be the highest note! Sometimes it’s the lowest. Sometimes it the place with the thickest texture or the most tension (dissonance before a resolution, for instance). Chances are you don’t need much help finding the high point or climax of a phrase, your musical intuition does that. But if you’re wondering, start by looking for the highest note (pitch-wise). Many times the climax of a phrase is about two thirds of the way through (it goes with that whole golden ratio thing).
Three Ways to Work With the High Point
- Aim for it. The overall phrase should be shaped in such a way that the high point is the biggest (loudest) note. This is a general guideline rather than a rule. Sometimes it sounds awesome to understate the high point of a phrase.
- Play with the tempo. There’s nothing wrong with a little rubato, and it’s a great way to add emphasis to the high point. Take care, however, that rubato does not become rhythmic distortion. Good rubato still maintains the sense of proportion between the rhythmic values. Also consider how much rubato is needed: too much of a slow down and the piece looses its energy, too little and there’s no effect. In my opinion, the use of rubato is better left to the resolution of the phase after the climax — how to use tempo to get out of the high point and close the phrase, in other words.
- Adjust the tone. The guitar doesn’t have as big of a dynamic range as other instruments, but we make up for it with our ability to use tone color. Decide what sort of tone is best used for the high point and go for it. In many cases it’s a full, robust sound, but that’s not always true. Sometimes a sweet, dolce tone is great with an understated climax.
The biggest thing, as with any other musical element, it simply being aware it exists. Knowing where the high point of a phrase is leads to a better interpretation. Think of a phrase as an arch. The first two thirds lead to the climax (the top of the arch), and the last third closes the idea.
Got any tips for finding or playing the high point of the phrase? Leave them in the comments!