You’ve probably seen the terms ‘tension and release’ or ‘tension and resolution’ before. The principle is important because it underlies practically all of music. It’s one of the main reasons that listeners feel like the music tells a story.

So what is tension and release in music? ‘Tension and release’ refers to the build-up of musical intensity that eventually dissolves and relaxes. For the listener, a moment of unrest in the music creates an expectation for its resolution and an anticipation for the drama to resolve. Tension and release keeps the music moving forward. 

Before we look at some examples and write some exercises, let’s define what tension in music really is.

Defining Tension in Music

Tension in music is not the same as everyday tension – it’s not a stress or an anxiety that would be nice to get rid of. And it doesn’t mean absolute chaos or total confusion either. Musical tension is a sense of unrest, instability, excitement or anticipation, an impression that more is coming and a curiosity for what’s next.

When a melody falls towards a low point or rises towards a high point, it catches our attention. When a new melody or a new instrument is introduced, we’re curious where it might lead. When the music goes loud or soft, we want to know why. When a rhythm changes quickly or a section finishes abruptly, we wonder what’s next. All of these are examples of different levels of musical tension.

Of course, some of these are emotional reactions that people have to music so not everyone will have the same experiences.


How do Composers Convey Tension and Release in Music?

Composers use all the elements of music as resources for tension and release. Tension and release is built through harmony, dynamics, timbre, rhythm, melody, and even through the structure of a piece or song.

As we go through these examples, notice that there’s always some kind of change involved. The change can be gradual or abrupt but in each case, one or more aspects of the music must undergo a transformation.

Harmonic Tension and Release

Harmonic tension is tension that is produced by chords and chord progressions. We study the details of this particular element of music composition in harmony but here are some common ways of creating harmonic tension. 

The first is through dissonant (or unstable) chords, which in traditional harmony always require a resolution into a consonant (stable) chord. Here’s one of the most beautiful examples I can think of. It’s from Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. Notice the thick-sounding chord producing a tension that is released in the next chord:

Tension and release in Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, first 2 bars

Chopin chose this very particular chord on purpose. Here’s what these same 2 bars would sound like if he wrote a more typical chord here instead (a less dissonant, less tense chord). It’s not even close in expressiveness.

An alternative chord in Chopin's Nocturne reduces the tension and therefore its musical and emotional impact.
An alternative chord in Chopin’s Nocturne reduces the tension and therefore its musical and emotional impact.

A common example of harmonic tension is in the cadential six-four. It’s a harmonic formula that produces a subtle tension and release by delaying the completion of the dominant chord. Learn all about the cadential six-four in this lesson.

Yet another very common way that harmony creates tension is through modulation (changing keys). Moving from the tonic to another key naturally evokes some unrest because we instinctively anticipate a return to the original tonic. One of my favorite examples to show students is the one we discuss in this lesson about 4-part harmony.

The music begins in G major but moves rather quickly to D major. It eventually returns to finish back on G major.

Key changes in Bach's Gottes Sohn ist kommen

Key changes in Bach’s Gottes Sohn ist kommen

Tension and Release through Dynamics

Apart from tension produced by chords, many other aspects of the music contribute to building tension. One of the simplest techniques to create tension is through the crescendo, meaning getting louder. A rise in volume is a rise in intensity too.

The longest, and probably the most famous, crescendo is Ravel’s Bolero. It begins very softly and gradually gets louder until it finishes very, very loudly. Here’s the wave the piece creates in Audacity: you can see how the it gets wider as it gets louder over almost 15 minutes.

Visual wave of Ravel's Bolero showing a gradual crescendo.
Visual wave of Ravel’s Bolero showing a gradual crescendo.

Music doesn’t always get louder gradually – sometimes it gets louder all of a sudden! In this case, the tension is usually even more pronounced. A fun example of this is in Haydn’s ‘Surprise Symphony’. In an interview, Haydn himself said that he was interested in ‘surprising the audience with something new’.  

You can see that the music gets louder where the waveform grows wider. This is where the composition gets its nickname as ‘Surprise Symphony’.

Visual wave of Haydn's Surprise symphony 2nd movement showing moments that get loud suddenly.
Visual wave of Haydn’s Surprise symphony 2nd movement showing moments that get loud suddenly. 

Speaking of dynamics, a moment of silence at just the right time can be incredibly effective at building anticipation. In this example from I will always love you, the pause builds the anticipation for the chorus. An even more pronounced example happens later in the song at around the 3:05 minute mark. The 3 or 4 second pause builds suspense and makes the chorus all the more satisfying and expressive when it finally comes.

The highlighted part shows the pause symbol followed by the rest.

Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's 'I will always love you'

Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I will always love you’

The same happens in Beethoven’s 4th movement of the 9th symphony just before the choir comes in at around the 13th minute. The music goes quite and then it goes silent just for an instant. The entry of the choir is made far more impressive because of it. 

Tension and Release through Rhythm

The driving force of music, rhythm, is especially useful in pushing things forward. Repetition, syncopation, going faster and rhythmic accompaniments are all great ways of developing tension in music. 

Repetition 

Let’s look at some examples in which a repeating rhythmic pattern (known as an ostinato) builds up a sense of anticipation. Such repetitions tend to get louder and build up even more intensity. 

The 2002 songAll My Life’ by the Foo Fighters is a great example of this. The first 40 seconds or so consist of a repeating G5 chord with Dave Grohl singing his verses over it. Listen to how the repetition of the chord creates a sense of expectation.

Another popular example is from Gustav Holst’s Mars from ‘The Planets Op. 32’. With his masterful orchestration and an exciting reiteration of this rhythm in 5/4, the entire movement in general is quite intense!

The rhythm from Holst's Mars

The rhythm from Holst’s Mars

Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, which we mentioned earlier, and Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, which we’ll discuss later are also examples of repeating rhythms that build up tension. 

Syncopation

Syncopation is when the pattern of strong and weak beats is disrupted by an unexpected accent or by another pattern that contradicts the meter. Here is the very beginning of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25. The rhythm played by the violins and violas produces longer notes on the weaker parts of the beat. Longer notes have what we call ‘rhythmic weight’ (meaning that since they’re longer, they sound more important).

Notice that the bass keeps a regular rhythm that outlines the normal beats of the meter. This confirms that the rhythm on top is actually syncopated. 

First 4 bars of Mozart's Symphony no. 25 showing syncopation.

First 4 bars of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 showing syncopation.

Just for fun, here’s what these same 4 bars would sound like if the rhythm was ‘corrected’ to agree with the meter and with the bass line. The top line is moved back by an eighth note. I think we can agree that compared to the original, it’s very uninspired and nowhere near as effective or dramatic:

First 4 bars of Mozart's Symphony no. 25 with the syncopation removed.

First 4 bars of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 with the syncopation removed.

Accelerando

Another way that rhythm can produce tension is by getting faster, known in musical terms as “accelerando”. Like the crescendo, an accelerando typically means a rise in intensity. In fact, the crescendo and accelerando often occur together just like in this example from Grieg’s popular In the Hall of the Mountain King.

Grieg: In the Hall of the Mountain King theme

Grieg: ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ – Theme only

When you look at the score of the piece (available for free here at IMSLP) you’ll notice several indications telling the performers to play faster and/or louder than before. The result is that the piece finishes in a fury both very fast and very loud. 

What to look for in the score:

  • Bar 34: cresc. e stretto poco a poco (getting louder and gradually faster)
  • Bar 38: cresc. poco a poco (slowly getting louder)
  • Bar 42: più cresc. (getting louder quicker)
  • Bar 46: più forte (louder)
  • Bar 50: Più Vivo (faster)
  • Bar 66: stringendo al fine (increasing speed till the end)
  • Bar 84: crescendo (getting louder)
  • Final bar finishing on fff (very, very loud)

Active Accompaniment

A rhythmically active accompaniment naturally creates an underlying sense of unrest. Examples of this are in the thousands but here’s one of my favorites by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. In the first movement of ‘In the Mists’ we get this beautiful, peaceful theme: 

from Janáček: In the Mists

from Janáček: In the Mists

A few bars later, it’s transformed into an exhilarating melody:

Same piece by Janáček, a few bars later.

Same piece by Janáček, a few bars later

What’s the difference? Of course, it’s louder but it’s the busy rhythmic accompaniment underneath that gives it life.

Tension and Release through Melody

A dramatic shift in the melody is another way of creating curiosity and intrigue. We often hear this in songs where, compared to the verses, the choruses are tenser and more exciting. 

One great example is in the song ‘Uprising’ by Muse. The singer, Matt Bellamy, sings the verses in a comfortable low range as if narrating the situation. But when we get to the chorus, the melody shifts higher to a range that is not as comfortable to sing. The effect is that the voice sounds tenser due to the effort required. Together with the lyrics “We will be victorious”, the chorus sung in this way becomes a kind of a plead or a call to act.

The same effect happens in many songs such as Gotye’s hit ‘Somebody that I Used to Know’, Pink Floyd’s High Hopes and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The change in register between verses and choruses is significant. This is why we as listeners often feel that the chorus has the biggest emotional impact on us. 

This is a common vocal technique in operatic writing too, the climax of an Aria often consists of high and/or long notes.

On the other hand, a dramatic shift in the melody can also release tension. Here is a theme from Vieuxtemps’ 2nd movement of his 6th violin concerto. The downward shift relaxes the tension and prepares for the end of the phrase.

from Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto no. 6, 2nd movement

from Vieuxtemps: Violin Concerto no. 6, 2nd movement

Tension and Release through Form

The form (or structure) of music also contributes to the tension and release principle. Most examples we’ve seen so far happen in one instant: a moment of tension followed by its release. This kind of tension is different because it takes time to unfold.

For example, Haydn had a habit of beginning his symphonies with a slow introduction. The purpose, of course, is to get the audience to settle down to build up the anticipation for the main musical material. Such introductions can take up to several minutes!

Another example is with modulation which we discussed earlier in this lesson. When a piece of music changes key, it can take anywhere from a few bars to a few minutes to return to the original key and finally resolve. This is one reason why tonal music (music that revolves around a tonic) is so powerful and effective.

I’d like to finish this section with a rather more unique example of tension and release through form. The song ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles begins with this hook that ends on the leading tone (the 7th note of the scale). In this case, that’s the note G sharp because the key is A major: 

The Beatles' hook from 'In My Life' ends unresolved, on the 7th degree

The Beatles’ hook from ‘In My Life’ ends unresolved, on the 7th degree

Our minds and ears are trained to expect the leading tone to resolve to the tonic but throughout the song, we keep getting the same hook always ending on the leading tone and with a sense of incompleteness. It’s only at the very last few seconds that the hook is resolved on the tonic, and with it the whole song! With that brilliant little hook, we get an on-going tension that is only resolved at the very end:

The Beatles’ hook from In My Life’ resolves on the tonic at the very end of the song.

This is an excellent example of long-range tension and release, which brings us to the last section of today’s lesson.


Long-Range Tension and Release

At the beginning of this section I described tension in various ways: it could be a sense of unrest, instability, excitement, anticipation, an impression that more is coming or a curiosity for what’s next.

In this sense of the word, tension is not just a few dramatic instants. It’s present in some way all the time.

Since music unfolds in time, listeners can never experience a piece of music in its entirety at one go like looking at a photograph. Instead, music is experienced over time – over a succession of moments.

This means that at any one moment, listeners have: 

  1. A memory or an impression of what they heard before,
  2. An awareness of what’s happening now,
  3. An anticipation for what’s coming next.

So some sort of expectation is always underlying the experience of listening. When any one moment in the music arrives, it fulfils old expectations and creates new ones at the same time. Tension, in this sense, is what keeps the music interesting by producing and resolving expectations for listeners. I hope you can see now that it goes beyond those moments of dramatic intensity we discussed earlier. In some way or another, it’s present all the time.

Here’s what the musical tension of a piece could look like on a graph. It’s like a melodic curve but instead of outlining the ups and downs of the notes of a melody, it outlines the highs and lows of musical tension. I call this the tension profile and I created it for this lesson so that we can see how tension and release progresses throughout a composition.

This diagram reveals three basic characteristics of musical tension:

  1. There is a gradual rise towards the climax – the moment of maximum intensity, which then resolves to bring the music to its finish.

  2. Some level of tension is always present. The complete and total resolution comes only at the very end with the conclusion of the piece itself.

  3. Since the contour rises and falls in different amounts, the tension profile also shows us that the release doesn’t have to be complete all the time. (If it were, every new rise in intensity would be met by an equal fall). Resolutions can be partial, delayed or even avoided altogether.

It’s important to note here that the tension profile could get a lot more detailed and a lot more complicated because there are many variables that contribute to the dramatic effects of music. In addition, the experience of music is subjective. Listeners can experience the same music in drastically different ways because of differences in background and history. Even for the same listener, hearing a song for the third or fourth time is a different experience than hearing it for the first time.

Because of this, it’s perfectly reasonable if we disagree about exactly how tense any one moment is. The main point here still stands: it’s crucial for music makers to think about the role of tension and release in their creations.

Keep in mind that from the listeners’ point of view, the amount of tension a moment has depends on the amount of attention that moment demands. In general, new musical materials demand more attention than familiar ones. So our role as composers and songwriters is to organize these materials to produce the right amounts of tension and resolution at just the right time.


Common Questions about Tension and Release in Music

Does music without tension and release exist? Probably not. Since music is experienced as it unfolds in time, there is always some anticipation going on even if the music is highly repetitive. 

How do you practice creating tension and release in music? Take the techniques we’ve seen in this lesson (dynamics, rhythm, melody and so on) and try to recreate them in your own way. You don’t have to create full songs and pieces – 20 second extracts are enough to practice with.