Foo Fighters - Rope

Why Avoiding the Tonic Note in Verse Melodies Creates Musical Tension

Written by Gary Ewer (Follow Gary on Twitter)

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To create musical tension means that we’re writing/playing music that makes listeners think that something more exciting is right around the corner. Musical tension includes anticipation of a climactic moment in the very near future. And that sense of anticipation is what keeps an audience listening.

Sometimes, creating musical tension is as much about what isn’t currently happening as anything else. And this is where we focus on the tonic note, and specifically when and we use it in a song.

The tonic note is the one that represents the key of your song. So if your song is in B minor, the note B is the tonic note. The chord built on that note – B – is the tonic chord. The tonic chord acts like a beacon, in the sense that most of your song’s progressions are going to move away from and back to the tonic chord, with the tonic note playing a special role.

The basic principle here is this: verses should avoid overuse of the tonic note in melodies, while chorus melodies are more likely to move toward the tonic note as an important goal. The avoiding of the tonic note in the verses creates a kind of musical tension that is resolved in the chorus.

A great example of this concept in action is in U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from their 1987 album “The Joshua Tree”:

  1. The song is in Db major. The verse melody largely avoids the tonic note (Db), dwelling mainly on the notes F and Ab.
  2. The verse melody eventually moves down to the tonic note, but when it first happens, it’s accompanied at first by a IV-chord (Gb), not the tonic chord, which doesn’t happen until the very end of the verse.
  3. The chorus melody starts on a high Ab, and then moves down in a mostly scale-wise way to finally reach the tonic note, accompanied by the tonic chord.

The avoidance of the tonic note in the verse melody has a way of building musical tension, or excitement, even though the typical listener won’t notice it in any overt way.

The principles involved here are these:

  1. Music that avoids both the tonic note and chord has a way of building tension and anticipation as the listener subconsciously searches for the repose that comes from the tonic.
  2. Melodies that move to the tonic note, but accompany it with a chord other than the tonic are a great way to keep musical tension high, and are particularly useful in verses. (For example, with a song in G major, using the note G in the melody, but accompanying it with a IV-chord (C), keeps tension high.)
  3. Melodies that move to the tonic note, simultaneously accompanied by the tonic chord, are great melodies for choruses, which benefit from the sense of resolution that comes from the coinciding of the two.

But creating tension doesn’t always have to happen in exactly that way. If you listen to a song like Foo Fighter’s “Rope“, you’ll hear that the verse melody starts on the tonic note (B, in the key of B minor), and the song benefits from the strength that comes from the tonic note and chord. The melody quickly moves away and upward, but keeps returning to the tonic. So how do they create a sense of tension and anticipation when the verse melody and chords keep returning to the tonic?

They do it mainly with chord choice. The tonic chord is followed by F – a tritone away from Bm, and not in the original key. So tension is created by hearing the original key, in a sense, disappear. With the chorus, the chords settle into a much stronger chord pattern (G Em Bm A). The melody for the chorus becomes much stronger more predictable, giving the sense of resolution that works so well for choruses.

In your own songs, try taking a close look at the melody notes. One of the best ways to create musical tension is to avoid overuse of the tonic note in the verse. If you do use the tonic note there, try avoiding the tonic chord happening at the same time. Then switch to focusing on the tonic for the chorus. Your song will benefit from the tension/release that comes from that technique.

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