The Tension-Release Principle of Songwriting

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

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What keeps a listener listening? If you can’t answer that question, your songs may be relegated to the dust-heap of music history, along with all the other songs that listeners got bored with. The answer to the question? It’s tension, then release, that keeps listeners listening. That’s why simply writing a good hook won’t be enough to ensure that someone sticks with your song.

SingerTo use the tension-release principle means that you need to set up elements of your song to feel unresolved, and then resolve them. Done correctly, the listener will wait, because they will want to feel the relaxation that comes from tension-release.

The best way to do this is to consider the many ways that tension can be artistically added to a song, and then overlap them.

Here’s a short list of the kind of tension-causing elements I’m talking about, along with their resolutions:

  1. HARMONY. Tension: Create harmonies in your verses that end in an open cadence, which means that it ends on a chord that requires something to complete it. The most obvious choice is to end your verse on a V-chord. Release: Start and end the chorus on a I-chord.
  2. MELODY. Tension: Allow the melody to rise as it nears the chorus. Release: Start the chorus melody where the verse leaves off. Allow the chorus melody to eventually finish lower than its start.
  3. LYRIC. Tension: Allow your verse lyric to ask questions, set up scenarios, explain situations. Release: Use the chorus lyric to answer questions and explain the emotional impact of the scenarios and situations from the verse. Use the bridge to fragment and put together both ideas; i.e., pose a question, then answer it right away.
  4. HOOK. Tension: Create a melodic/rhythmic shape that ends in such a way that the restatement of the hook acts as a resolution for the end of it. In other words, create something that can be harmonized with a I-chord at its beginning, and a ii-chord or V-chord at its end. Release: The restatement of the hook creates its own tension-release situation. Allow the hook to disappear for a short period of time, perhaps during the bridge. This creates a type of tension where the listener wants to hear the hook return.

Now, what you want to do is to overlap these various elements, and create a situation where several different stresses and tensions are being created, and then resolved. It’s nice when the resolutions don’t all happen at the same time. For example, a hook will be creating several or many tension-release moments in the verse, while the lyric’s tension-relase will likely take a minute or more to occur.

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