Songwriting: Creating Harmonic Tension and Release

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Red Hot Chili Peppers - The Adventures of Rain Dance MaggieHow does tension and release work in the world of songwriting? Tension usually means creating an “artistic stress” that needs some sort of resolution. In yesterday’s blog posting I wrote about the crucial differences between verse and chorus design. In most cases, the chorus acts as a release of various tensions created in the verse. In this post, I want to look specifically at chord progressions. You can use one chord progression to create musical stress, and another one to create a release. Here’s how that works.

Every chord progression creates tensions that are usually quickly released. For example, a short progression such as G D7 G features a tonic chord (G) that acts as a kind of “home base”. The D7 is a dominant chord that needs resolution. You can hear the result of not providing resolution by simply playing G and D7 without returning to G. Dominant chords create harmonic tension that require a release.

But there are other, more subtle ways to use chord progressions to create tension and release. So subtle that listeners don’t often recognize that they are experiencing musical tension. But the beauty of subtle musical tension is that it keeps listeners listening. Similar to someone walking up a hill, they look forward to being able to walk down the other side.

Here are some ideas you can try to create subtle harmonic tension and release in your songs:

  1. Focus on minor chords in the verse, major chords in the chorus. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ latest hit, “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie“, demonstrates this beautifully. All of the chords come from the key of G major, but the verse focuses on the relative minor (Em) side of the key, using this short progression: Em C, then switching to a more standard major key progression for the chorus: G Em G Em C G/B Am D.
  2. Use deceptive cadences. A cadence is usually the last two chords of a progression. For example, a song in G major might end with the chords D7 G. That’s a very predictable cadence. But you can create a pleasant build in tension by ending a phrase on a less-common chord: G C D7 Em for example, or perhaps G C D7 C. As soon as you hit that unexpected chord at the end, it creates tension, allowing you to do the progression again, but ending on the more expected tonic chord: G C D7 Em G/B C D7 G.
  3. Change key between verse and chorus. This is trickier to manage, because a change in key will move your melody to a different range. So you’ll need to be sure of two things: 1) The key change sounds good; and 2) The melody is still singable. In a way, focusing on minor for the verse and major for the chorus is a kind of changing key, but I’m suggesting something more daring, using two keys with less in common. You might try G major for a verse and a switch to Bb major for the chorus: G  Am  D7 G  G/B  C  Am  F |Bb  Eb…
  4. Use pedal tones to strengthen the tension of a standard progression. A pedal tone is a note that is held constantly in one instrumental part (most often the bass), while the chords change. It’s a great way to increase tension, because occasionally the bass note does not even exist in the actual progression, enhancing the sense of stress. Example: G  C/G  D7/G  G.
  5. Add non-chord-tones to your progressions. A non-chord tone is a note that doesn’t exist in the simple, triad version of a chord. For example, in Dsus4, the “sus4” is the non-chord tone. Dsus4 needs resolution, and so it’s usually followed by a simple D triad. There are other kinds of non-chord tones that will increase tension, which you can read about here.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Pingback: Tension – melchelsearts

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