Tension & Release (A Practical Musician’s Guide)

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  • What is tension and release?
  • How does music create tension and release?
  • How do you build tension in music?

We’ve all experienced that moment after listening to our favorite track where our expectations feel warmly satisfied. The atmosphere was beautiful; the journey was awesome… we’re completely fulfilled. The feeling’s great, right?

It might have seemed like our favorite track just went and pleased our expectations the whole time we listened. However, if music only did that, we would be left feeling pretty bored and underwhelmed.

So, how does the best music create enough of an atmosphere and a journey to give us a genuine sense of satisfaction and closure by the end?

Cue the powerful concept of tension and release.

What is Tension and Release?

Tension and release is a powerful dramatic effect found in all forms of art. It involves setting up and maintaining our expectations about whatever is happening – usually for just long enough to get us feeling settled in and comfortable.

Following this feeling comes with a sense that things are about to change and, as suddenly or gradually as the creator wishes, aspects of the experience are tweaked. It feels like the ground underneath our feet becomes less stable.

This instability could have come from a sudden, surprise change, or a very subtle series of transformations – or anything in between. Then, in music, there are two main ways of resolving that tension after it has been built:

1. By establishing the tension as a new norm

We will often feel surprised, engaged, and a little alarmed from having our experience destabilized like this – Tension. It’s more stimulating than things constantly staying the same, right?

However, once that change has been established long enough, we can begin to settle into it and start considering the transformed state as no longer ‘unstable’ but the opposite – a ‘new norm’ – which causes us to feel Release.

2. By resolving dissonance or momentum

Instead of allowing a tension-building sense of change to become established as a new norm, some music gives us an outright experience of resolving the tension. This is achieved through adjusting the harmony of the piece: resolving dissonance.

Notes that do not match the key in the chords or scale(s) of the piece and notes that clash together are moved to their ‘resolved’ places that fit the key. This most importantly applies to the main melody of the piece (if there is one): the melody typically needs to land on a chord tone to induce a proper sense of release.

Musical cadences sound the most stable and act as a resolution to the tension. However, some inventive styles of music (particularly film music) can actually expand upon and further increase the built-up tension by using cadences with suspended chords, which do not resolve their notes in the way the ear typically expects.

Resolving momentum can be another way of releasing tension – this time focusing on the rhythmic qualities of the music. The tempo could slow down or speed up to a recognizable ‘conclusion’ point, or the rhythmic frequency (amount of notes in a certain space of time) could decrease or increase. 

The ‘momentum’ of the piece could stop entirely, meaning there are only held notes – known as drones. Even silence could be the thing to resolve momentum, and this almost always occurs at the end of a musical piece. As weird as it sounds, a strong piece of music FINISHING can resolve tension and create one of the biggest moments of release you’ll find out there!

Check out ‘Space Dementia’ by Muse – this piece exemplifies pretty much all of the above techniques of building tension and releasing it skilfully.

Music creates tension and release by changing various aspects of its own behavior at the right moments to surprise or comfort us. Great tracks will often both surprise and comfort us in a rotating cycle.

How are Tension and Release Created in Music?

Creating tension and release in music is all about setting up expectations, then skilfully surpassing them or knocking them down. Through deploying tension and release cycles, music makes us feel subject to a sense of motion. 

Check out ‘Salt’ by Caligula’s Horse – see if you can guess what will happen in each upcoming section as you feel it approaching, and compare your guesses with what actually happens!

Tension and Release through Motion

With a sense of motion, we were originally in one place at the start of a track. However, through our own curiosity and commitment to what we’re experiencing, we’ve taken enough corridors and turns to wind up somewhere else along the way. This creates tension and release to the max. 

And how come that’s such a beautiful thing in some pieces of music but an utterly terrifying one in other pieces? The answer most likely lies in the quality of the harmony, chords, and texture. 

In the ‘beautiful’ link above (Jacob Collier’s ‘In The Real Early Morning’), you’ll be able to hear that most of the chords sound incredibly consonant – they don’t contain any jarring notes as such – and a clear journey of tension vs. release unfolds through the use of understandable musical elements. 

In the ‘utterly terrifying’ link, however (Queens Of The Stone Age’s ‘The Fun Machine Took A S**t And Died), you’ll be able to hear a lot of de-tuned notes, chords that clash, and unpredictable sounds that almost sneak up on us. This journey of tension vs. release unfolds through the element of dissonant surprise.

Sometimes, tension is created in music by doing the opposite of generating a sense of motion. A lot of dance music will maintain the same beat, chords/key, and rhythmic pulse for a long time – so how is tension created there? 

Tension and Release Through Mutation

‘Kicking and Screaming’ by The Presets is a great example of building tension while the piece seems to remain constant. Every four bars or so, a layer of studio-produced sound is added or tweaked, making the piece itself appear constant but its contents always mutating. 

The changes are subtle, but see how many sonic elements you can spot and even describe as they appear and/or mutate.

How do you Build Tension in Music?

Let’s dig a little deeper to finish off.

Tension and release can produce a variety of responses and feelings in the audience depending on the variables which are changed, how quickly or drastically they are changed, and how long those changes are left to become the ’new norm’:

The Variables Which are Changed

Depending on what has changed in the music, we will experience a different reaction. If the melody changes, for example, we might feel that it marks a dramatic change in the piece – because we recognize melody as being incredibly important to contemporary forms of music.

However, if the harmony changes, we might feel a change in mood – because we understand that chords and harmony imply qualities of emotion.

If it’s the rhythm or structure of the piece which shifts, we might feel a change in direction – because we know that rhythm guides a feeling of motion and movement in us while we listen, and structure forms our ‘mind map’ of the piece.

How Quickly or Drastically Things are Changed

Oftentimes, how ‘brilliant’ a musical journey seems is entirely down to the measurement of how quickly or drastically things are transforming according to our initial expectations. This measurement is called the rate of change. 

A strong rate of change in Pop and EDM music is often consistent because we want to feel safely fastened in and secured to those styles of music. In contrast, a strong rate of change in Hard Rock or Film music might be more inconsistent and appear more unpredictable.

By contrast, there is music out that creates tension and release through having practically no rate of change whatsoever…

Case Study: ‘Cornfield Chase’ by Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer’s ‘Cornfield Chase’ from the film Interstellar showcases a completely unpredictable and non-logical structure; the music simply builds in intensity, from start to finish. There are no ‘Chorus’ sections or recurring moments – only a Church Organ playing an increasingly complex combination of melodies from earlier and later moments in the film. 

We have nothing really to hold onto other than the overall sound, or ‘atmosphere,’ of the piece. This is what makes great Film Music so utterly transfixing; it provides a minimal amount of certainty. This is an example of tension and release through our expectations of structure.

How Long are Those Changes Left to Become the New Norm?

Most Pop and EDM will often follow an established track structure, which provides an already-acknowledged rate of change.  We can anticipate when most Pop and EDM songs are about to rise to a Chorus or mellow out into another Verse. However, new layers and behaviors of instruments, sounds, or rhythms are often added before we get too used to things. 

‘Faded’ by Alan Walker is a brilliant example of this – compare the first half of the song to the second, and you’ll be able to hear subtle elements changing and layering over each other to keep things fresh and our expectations always second-guessing.

Case Study: ‘Kill EVERYBODY’ by Skrillex

Skrillex’s ‘Kill EVERYBODY’ bears no surprises in how the song sections are put together. Instead, tension and release are excellently created through the ‘density’ and ’stability’ of each section. 

There is sheer contrast in how ’safe’ we feel while listening to the sections where the drums & beats are present (Intro & Drop sections) and absent (the more ambient Break sections). Read on to find out why.

Skrillex leads us from fairly predictable, consistent, chunky beats in the Intro to an eerie Break section, which comes off as creepy and unpredictable. 

The combination is striking: glitchy, chopped vocal FX moving around our Left and Right headphones (Stereo Panning), the repetitive synth sounds that act as claustrophobic ’ticking’ as if time is running out, and the lack of drum beats altogether (see the Rhythmic Tension section below).

This Break section has something ‘off’ about it. It’s simply too ‘weird’ and rhythmless to keep going in that state. We can expect that things are clearly about to blow up with a bassy drop section. Surely enough, the drop section absolutely tears our heads off. 

However, every time that signature Dubstep ‘wobble’ bass finishes its wobbling, we are greeted with a Euro Rave-style synth passage for about 3-4 seconds – a completely unexpected change in texture, in stark contrast to the filthy, rapid Dubstep bass that was set up as ’the norm’ at the start of the drop section. 

This piece is a beautiful example of tension and release using our expectations of genre (and implied texture).


Wrapping Up

We now know that tension and release in music is created through a cycle of establishing and knocking down expectations.

Through playing with the relationship between change and consistency, great music encourages us to settle into the sound world but then challenge our experience as things undergo twists and turns in development.

The number one rule in mastering tension vs. release? Never allow the audience to get 100% comfortable!

Singing……… Off. (boom tisch).