Creating Song Melodies That Never Resolve

At first blush, creating musical tension in a song doesn’t sound like something you want to do. We’ve learned in our everyday lives that tension is usually something negative — something that needs to be resolved.

But in music, tension is a crucial characteristic of some of the best song melodies written. That’s because musical tension demands that we keep listening, always seeking a kind of musical resolution or release.

How to Harmonize a Melody“How to Harmonize a Melody.” It shows you, step-by-step, how to add chords to that melody you’ve created. The perfect text for songwriters trying to improve on their melody-first songwriting skills.

George Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” from the Beatles “White Album” is the perfect example of musical tension that’s used in a very beautiful way. Before I get to that song, I want to describe exactly how we create musical tension.

How Do We Create Musical Tension?

One of the best ways to understand musical tension is to start with tension as it applies to a chord progression:

C  F  Dm  G  G7 (I  IV  ii  V  V7)

Our understanding of how music works means that as soon as we hear the C chord, we assume that it’s the tonic — the chord that represents the key we’re in. As we listen through the progression, we hear that tonic chord trying to return.

And by the time we get to G7 (what music theory call the dominant seventh), we have no problem understanding that the next chord should be C, even though we haven’t heard it yet.

That’s the kind of musical tension I’m talking about. It’s the beauty of what are called chord progression “turn-arounds”, where the last chord moves easily back to the first chord. In other words, the end of the progression demands a resolution chord, but that resolution chord is the beginning of the progression, and so around we go again.

Musical Tension in “Long, Long, Long”

Let’s look at tension now as it applies to a melody, and its interaction with the chords that support it. You likely know that a tonic note is the note that represents the key of your song. If your song is in F major, for example, when you sing an F, you’re singing the tonic note.

And normally, the tonic note is where any musical tension gets released: we feel that we’re “home.” You can hear this effect easily if you think of the last note of “Let It Be” (“Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.)

In “Let It Be”, the tonic note sounds, and then we get a little finishing chord progression that ends on the tonic chord. We feel everything relax, in the musical sense of that word. The coinciding of the tonic note with the tonic chord creates musical relaxation.

In the melody “Long, Long, Long”, we hear lots of tonic notes, but every time we hear that note happen, we don’t get musical relaxation; usually one of the following happens:

  1. We get a tonic note, but it’s accompanied by some other non-tonic chord.
  2. We get a tonic note and tonic chord, but they happen in the middle of a phrase, not at the end.

So when you listen to the opening phrase (“It’s been a long, long, long time…”),  you can hear George’s voice move up and hit the tonic note (F) on the first “long.” But the chord that happens at that point is a IV-chord (Bb). Eventually we hear a lower tonic note when he sings “When I loved you“, and though it’s accompanied by a I-chord (F), it happens in the middle of a phrase.

So what this means is that by the time we get to the end of a musical phrase, we feel we need more. We haven’t felt a sense of repose or relaxation of the music. We usually need a tonic note coinciding with a tonic chord, like the end of each phrase of “Let It Be.”

This gives “Long, Long, Long” the feeling of always seeking, never stopping. Each phrase naturally seeks out the next one. Even the end of the song doesn’t give us a tonic note/tonic chord. It ends on a dominant chord (C). It’s lovely.

Good songwriters probably do this sort of thing by instinct, and certainly by the White album George Harrison had proven his incredible songwriting talents.

In your own songs, if you want to create this sense of pent up musical tension that keeps the music wanting to move forward, check the ends of your musical phrases. If you’re getting a lot of tonic note and tonic chord happening at the same time, see if it’s possible to change either the final note or chord of your verse and/or chorus to something other than the tonic, to generate this sense of the music always wanting to continue.

That kind of tension is a wonderful way to keep people listening.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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