"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 11. Tension and Release


The interaction of melody and harmony in a song creates moments of relative tension and moments of relative rest. Always an area of interest is how the writer has handled these elements and how the composition arrives at a sense of resolve, at different points in the unfolding of the song, but certainly at the end.

More often than not, the melody of a song will end with the note of the key of the song, and more often than not, this note will be preceded by the note one half-step below it. This ti-do resolution is very common in songs and by landing on the seventh, the "ti", the melody benefits from the tension inherent in the relationship of these two notes.

An example of this is the familiar, "Shave and a haircut, two bits." Similar tension is created when the second degree of the scale is present and also the fourth and the sixth. It depends on how each of these is used, but there are several ways in which these tensions can create a satisfying effect.

Suspensions

One of the most common is the suspension. A suspension occurs when a note which is dissonant to the chord is held for a strong beat and then allowed to resolve to a note which is in tune or consonant with the chord.

For instance if we play a C chord and hold the note F for a moment through the first strong beat or longer and then let it resolve down a half step to E we have what is called a 4-3 suspension.

Another suspension which is often used is the 2-1 suspension and is the same except that if we use our example of a C chord, the suspended note would be the D and would resolve downward to the C.

The other common suspension is the 7-8 suspension. This suspension is unique because it resolves upward. There are many examples of suspensions in well known songs. Any time you have a note falling on a strong beat which is not in the chord, you are hearing the effect of a suspension. Stravinsky used the minor second to great effect, although this interval is too grating for most kinds of music.

All of these devices rely on the dynamic of tension and release. As you can see tension can be created by the words or the music. In the music, tension is created by the relationship of the intervals, vertical or horizontal, and by their occurrence in time.

Valences

All notes by virtue of their position relative to the other notes in the song have what might be called tendencies, or valences. This property is almost like the valences which are spoken of in chemistry. Some of the effects of these tendencies are the result of what comes before the note in question, what expectation has been established. If notes are repeated, even though there has been no movement up or down, a tension has been created and something new is expected.

It is this emotional energy which is the stock in trade of the songwriter. The best way to gain some facility with these elements is to learn to play and sing a great many songs. This is the writer's musical vocabulary.

The secret is to get to the point with songs where we don't just think in terms of notes and words, but in more complex terms of mood and meaning. I suppose this is similar to learning any language where we hope to get past just one word and the next and think in concepts.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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