5 Songwriting Ideas That Create Tension-Release

Tension and release –  it’s what keeps people listening.


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GuitaristThe “tension and release” concept in songwriting is one of those things that most listeners aren’t overtly aware of. Because it’s not as simple as, for example, music getting louder, though that can be part of it. Tension and release is usually more subtle. It means purposely creating moments of “unrest” or “conflict” – moments that require resolution. When it’s done correctly, the moment of unrest is done in such a way that you can sense the resolution coming. It’s that predicting of resolution that keeps listeners hooked.

A good example can be found in the way chord progressions work. The V-chord (dominant chord) likes to resolve to the I-chord (tonic chord). So when you play the progression I-IV-V7-I (e.g., C F G7 C), you sense the “need” for the I-chord at the end, especially when the V7 is played. That V7 creates a short moment of tension that’s resolved by playing the I-chord.

You can enhance and strengthen the tension of the dominant chord in a number of different ways. For example, you might replace the I-chord at the end with a so-called deceptive cadence, which means “fooling” the listener by playing something they weren’t expecting – like a vi-chord (I-IV-V7-vi). Since listeners were expecting a I-chord, the vi-chord creates even more stress – now there’s even more desire to hear the progression resolve on a I-chord. So when you finally do give the I-chord at the end, the tension has built up even more, and the eventual resolution can be even more musically satisfying.

A deceptive cadence like that is just one way to build tension. And remember, building tension and allowing it to resolve is something you should be actively seeking to do in your songs. It keeps people listening. Here are five more ways:

  1. Rhythmic tension. Over the basic beat that you use, think about the rhythm of your backing instruments and melody/lyric. You can create a sense of rhythmic tension in your verse by using syncopation (i.e., the feeling of displacement of the beat). When you look at hit songs, you’ll notice many moments where the melody line starts on an off-beat, and lots of other creative use of rhythm. The release: Try to get things to line up more in the chorus. Allow the chorus lyric to happen more on the beat, with less syncopation.
  2. Melodic tension. Melodies and chord progressions usually go hand-in-hand. One way to create melodic tension is through the purposeful avoiding of the tonic note in the melody, particularly in the verse. So as your chord progression approaches the tonic chord, listeners expect to also hear the tonic note. Don’t give it to them; try a different note, one that still works with the tonic chord, like the 3rd or the 5th. The release: start using the tonic chord more in the chorus. The “missing” tonic note in the verse creates the tension that’s eventually resolved in the chorus.
  3. Bridge tension. If your song uses a bridge, you’ll kill energy if you simply have it wander around, using the same chords and melodic ideas that people have already heard. Try using more complex chords – altered chords, a different tonality… that kind of thing. You can also create melodies that are a little more intricate in structure, as well as rhythms that generate more energy. The release: As listeners hear the music straying from what they’ve already heard, they know that the chorus is coming back, and that expectation is what creates the tension. The return of the chorus is the eventual release.
  4. Instrumental tension. Anytime listeners hear an instrument, tension is created when that instrument is dropped from the mix. Why? Because you’ll usually end a song with at least the same instruments you started with, if not more. So if you want to create tension, try a second or third verse without drums, or even a cappella (i.e., no instrumental backing). The release: Bring the missing instruments back in after 8 or 16 bars.
  5. Dynamic tension. Dynamics refer to loudness. By inserting a long, carefully-controlled crescendo (increase in loudness), you create an exciting sense of tension. That’s because crescendos need to have a goal: they don’t continue forever. So as you approach the end of your verse, you can create tension by having instruments playing louder. Try a cymbal roll, a crescendo in the drums and backing instruments, and in the lead vocal. The release: Let the chorus continue at the new dynamic level created by the crescendo.

Tension-release is crucial for any musical composition. In many cases, it’s the kind of thing that can be added to a song once the writing is complete. For every song you write, simply ask yourself, “What have I done in this song that has created tension, and how have I resolved it?”


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: 5 Essentials to Better Music | DCCVII

  2. Hi Gary,

    First off, thanks for taking your time to write this great article. No one should be complaining about it. Harmonic tension would’ve been a good one to add as well. By progressively adding in a few more chords (example : chromatically going up from the VI chord to the i chord – Amaj – C#m, adds a lot of tension). ‘Momentum’ is another one I’d add, that can create a lot of tension. The use of silence as well. Definitely agree with everything you say though. Great job!!

  3. This is a great article. People seriously need to listen to this idea of tension and release.

    This strategy is something many songwriters are not even aware of. Everyone probably employs it to a degree, subconsciously, but once someone can consciously focus their efforts on it, their songwriting will improve tremendously.

    One artist who utilized this principle exceptionally well was the late, great, Elliott Smith. He was very well aware of this idea, and executed it masterfully. He built the tension to an excruciating point, until the release was pure satisfaction and ecstasy. He made inexplicably beautiful music in this way.

    Thanks for the read! Creating tension and release, It’s the most under appreciated ability in songwriting, in my opinion.

  4. Honestly, your site and presentation looks great and I’d certainly like to make time to go through it – but lacking any real access to your actual work (and I mean links you would provide, not googling and playing detective) gives me the impression that you are not proud of it, or don’t think readers would appreciate non-commercial output. Your seem unwilling to link your financial success to your ability as a songwriter/musician. I have been guilty of this in the past so perhaps I’m reading into it. But that is the impression I’m left with. I’d greatly appreciate links to any works you can share. Thanks, Steve_Notice: srn1@optonline.net

    • Hi Steve:

      Are you an armchair psychologist? I’m actually quite proud of the work I do and the music I write, a fair bit of which you can see here. But I don’t talk a lot about my own music, because that’s not the purpose of my blog. It’s a blog about songwriting technique. My career has been, over the past 25 years, teaching people how to write music, how to play it, how to arrange it, how to orchestrate it and how to hear it. That’s what I bring to this blog. Beyond that, I don’t really have an agenda.


  5. That’s enlightening! Thank you. One of the most captivating songs employing these concepts of tension and release for me happens to be song ‘Right in two’ by Tool.

    Great article!

  6. Thank you for your reply–good points! In many competitions they say that they aren’t looking for good production necessarily, but often it does help to fill in what someone’s imagination would otherwise have to. I only brought it up because a) I’m a stickler and can’t help myself(!) and b) there are many people out there perpetuating the idea that if you have good production/arrangement, you don’t need to work as hard on songwriting craft. I can tell that you are not one of these people (respect). I also figured that you understood the distinction between songwriting and arranging, but since a lot of people are new to this they might not know. Hopefully I don’t sound like a smug jerk!

    P.S. Chords are incredibly important to me during the songwriting process (perhaps I rely too heavily on them) and so I can definitely see why you included them in your article. 🙂

    • Hi Robin:

      Well, I certainly know what you mean about the good production versus good songwriting issue. Eighty percent of the songs at or near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart these days demonstrate amazing production skills, but often fall far, far short in anything that would resemble songwriting craft. For young songwriters, the problem is a big one, because it is so easy now for a songwriter to put something together with the use of apps and equipment that can put a slick shine on something. I mention arrangement in with songwriting because it is very difficult to separate the two now, and I think songwriting is going to move even more in that direction. I think you are absolutely correct in your assertion that songwriting structure can and should be a separate issue from whatever arrangement you might apply. And hopefully, I’ve been conveying that in my articles.


  7. These are really great ideas, however I want to point out that half of the suggestions are actually arrangement ideas, not songwriting. Chords, dynamics, and what instruments to use can be part of the songwriting process, but you can alter most of these and still have (essentially) the same song. I still think they are excellent suggestions though.

    • Hi Robin:

      Thanks for writing. Yes, I think that’s a fair comment. However, in this day & age, when so many songwriters are now in charge of the entire process from songwriting right through to recording their own demo and even marketing their own music, the lines between areas such as composition, arrangement, and production get a bit blurry. And I have always “erred” on the side of giving arrangement advice as part of songwriting advice for that reason. Also, working on aspects of a song that typically come under the arrangement banner can get the mind thinking in a slightly different direction as one composes, and that’s another reason I give a lot of advice regarding arrangement. You are absolutely correct, of course, that many aspects of a composition can change while not changing the basic composition.

      Thanks again,

  8. If only the rest of my band could grasp that writing good songs does not simply consist of having the dreaded I-V-vi-IV / i-VI-III-VII progression… Thanks for the tips! I shall use them to prove that “Simple” is not always synonym of “Great”.

  9. just wanna say THANK YOU gary ..I have been lacking this concept “Tension and release” again thank you

    • Hi Alan:

      Most of the composing these days is for choral groups, and the majority of it is published by Kelman Hall Publishing, as well as my own company, Pantomime Music Publications. Because choral groups don’t do a lot of pop song – more classical/folk song, etc – most of my music is closer to the classical side of music than pop song. Regarding recordings, choral groups tend to do lots of live performing but not a lot of recording. I keep meaning to put together a listening list of my music that choirs have recorded, and perhaps I need to get busy and do that.

      Thanks very much for writing, Alan.

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