Songwriting technique: Tension and release

22 October, 2015 in Features, Tips & Techniques

Acoustic guitar close-up

Tension and release is thought to be the most essential and underlying principle of all western music.

Guitar tutor Jack Jennings takes us through the definition, application and theory behind the unresolved element and its contrasting resolution

Tension and release is thought to be the most essential and underlying principle of all western music. To us, as musicians, it’s our inbuilt sense of how things should sound and where the music is going. As listeners, it’s what makes us sit on the edge of our seat and then feel satisfied when the music makes you feel at home. We identify tension as the moment when the music sounds unresolved, and wants to go somewhere, before it can settle. In contrast, when the music feels fully at peace with itself – like the way a song ends on a ‘pleasant note’ – that’s called release.

How is it used?

All melodic and harmonic movement is either consciously or subconsciously perceived by the human ear as containing tension or release. In fact a lot of the time what we are hearing has varying degrees of both, but one of them tends to dominate during one specific chord or note of a tune. Most would agree that the notes or intervals fall into a kind of spectrum. In this sense a tune can either stick with the ‘safest notes’ or perhaps delve into increasingly murky waters.

One of key factors here is the duration and emphasis placed on a particular note. For example, many notes or chords can happily have their place within a piece, if they are merely passing by momentarily. But it’s the notes that you rest on that have the most conclusive effect. Finish a phrase on the tonic note and there will be a completeness to it; land on a note with tension and it’s as if you have paused slap bang in the middle of a sentence, it leaves everyone waiting for you to finish what you were saying. Don’t get me wrong this also has its place.

The theory: resting notes and passing notes

So the resting notes give a sense of resolution and typically end a song. Passing notes have varying degrees of tension and sound like they need to go somewhere to resolve. The main thing to get familiar with is which notes are considered resting notes and then the other notes will be easy to find in relation to those. It’s also worth knowing that, at any give time, there are always more potential passing notes than resting notes.

The notes of the major arpeggio form the standard resting notes known as intervals 1, 3 and 5 – notes C, E and G in key of C. These notes form a triad to make up the major chord. So if we’re playing C major, then those notes will be the most obvious to base a melody on.

The other notes of the major scale (intervals 2nd/9th, 4th, 6th, and 7th) will hold a degree of tension when played over the C chord. They will only create a ‘light tension’ to add more depth and intrigue.

When we get to minor chords there are different notes that fall into these definitions, most notably the 3rd interval becoming flattened: the b3 = Eb in C minor.

If we were to play notes that don’t belong to the chosen key then we would hear a much darker mysterious kind of tension. The effects can range from exotic to bizarre and even painful to some ears. For now, let’s stick with the softer more common ones…

Chord suspensions/extensions

The guitar chord boxes below show two different categories of chord alteration to get you started. The diagrams show the basic Major chord and then some additional notes around it that can be used. If you add one of these notes to the chord you will hear a slight tension, that will resolve when you go back to the standard Major chord.

The suspended chords (known as ‘sus’) are covering up the 3rd interval which creates the tension. The name ‘suspended’ literally means a note suspended over the 3rd:

Suspended C and D chords

Suspended chords with variations: Csus2 / Csus4 (left) and Dsus2 / Dsus4

The extended chords keep the 3rd but have extra notes, which creates depth and a thicker texture:

Extended chords

Extended chords with variations: Cmaj6 / C7 / Cmaj7 (left) and Dmaj6 / D7 / Dmaj7 / Dadd9 (right)

What makes these chords special is that more notes are often added, in a series reaching further up the scale. For example the 13th chord could include all four extension notes, being 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th – creating a very rich chord indeed. So, if you like the sound of the 7th and 6th chords shown here, there is a whole lot more where they came from!

Chord changes also play a key role in this topic. They create cadences giving a sense of gravity to a progression, or even temporarily shift the resting notes which may result in a ‘key change’, turning everything on its head. However, chord progressions is an art and craft all of its own and requires a far more detailed explanation.

Universal nature

These principles are relatively maintained across styles and cultures. What does set them apart is that certain styles are more at home with the notes that are considered tension-building. These exotic forms of music simply have more tension as an inherent part of the music, at least when compared to most western music.


Jack JenningsJack Jennings offers on-line tuition in songwriting and guitar playing through Skype. He is also a co-founder of NightTrain, developing specialist blues guitar courses, and Raag School, a foundation for learning Indian classical music on any instrument. For more information visit www.guitarlessonsbath.net

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