You might have noticed that certain chord changes give you a feeling of satisfaction, pleasure even. A feeling that makes you feel complete. On the other hand, before this feeling arrives, you may feel the change in the music, the feeling that the song is moving, that it is progressing. Both of these feelings are closely associated with tension and release. Mastering tension and release is an important aspect of music.
Building tension helps to engage the listener, while creating a release provides satisfaction, in a way that all the tension comes out in a single moment of satisfaction and pleasure.
Combined, tension and release are a key to making good music.
Most of the times, it is planned and well-defined, but to many songwriters, it comes naturally, as if the music is guiding itself. In this article, we’ll be exploring the concept of tension and release, and how we can utilize the circle of fifths to build tension and create a release.
The circle of fifths is a handy tool for all music creators. If you go clockwise on the circle, you’ll find the fifths for each note. But if you go anti-clockwise, you’ll reverse the interval, and get a fourth. You’ll soon find out how this will be useful.
Understanding Tension and Release
In today’s music, tension and release is usually created by building chord progressions.
These chord progressions work in the background, and slowly create movement in the song, without you ever noticing it. Now how these chord progressions actually work is really simple.
To understand this properly, let us divide a chord progression into three parts:-
1) The Tonic
This part features the root chord, and estabilishes the key of the chord progression.
Since this is the tonal itself, it is the area of most stability in the entire chord progression.
2) Increasing Tension
This region progressively increases the tension, engages the listener and builds up movement in the song.
This region is the area of highest tension, usually the penultimate chord in the progression. This area is away from the tonic in terms of the notes
and is generally followed by the tonic.
4) The Tonic Comes Back
Instead of progressively decreasing tension in the music, what we do, is we jump from high tension to the tonic, in a single moment, releasing the built-up tension and creating a feeling of satisfaction in the music.
This transition is the essence of the chord progression.
Understanding the Cycle
This cycle is often repeated several times in the course of a song, throughout various stanzas and verses. Typically, this cycle is in the form of a I-IV-V progression, one of the most common chord progressions in music.
The tonic chord, helps to establish stability in the music. The IV chord, called the subdominant here, helps to bridge the gap between the tonic and the V. This is inserted because the change from low tension to high tension must be subtle, not sudden.
Finally the V chord, the dominant creates the highest point in tension in the song. Avoid using this directly with the tonic, as it can sound too sudden. Try to use a chord in between the I and V to create a flow between the chords.
For major it goes, tonic, subdominant, dominant
For minor it goes, tonic(minor), minor and dominant.
Using the Circle of fifths
Now how does the circle of fifths relate to this? Remember that if you go clockwise, you get the fifth of each note, and if they go anticlockwise, you get the fourth. You can easily use this trick to instantly create a simple chord progression and using tension and release. Just select any note, and play, it’s corresponding chord. This is the tonic. Next, shift one step anticlockwise, you’ll get the IV. Play this next. Then, go two steps clockwise, that is, one step clockwise from the tonic you selected. This is the fifth.
A couple of things to remember is that you have to use to appropriate versions of the selected chords.
For Major Chords
- The tonic is major
- The IV chord is also major
- The V chord is a dominant chord, usually a 7th chord.
For Minor Chords
- The i is a minor
- The iv is also minor
- The V chord is again dominant, a 7th chord.
An example of this is a simple C-F-G7 progression. The C is the tonic, the area of greatest stability. As you move from C to F, you create a little tension. Then, as you go from F to G7, the tension is increased. Then, the transition from G7 to C creates a feeling of release.
Remember, you can use any chord(provided it’s in the same key) to create tension, but the best way to release it is to move back to the tonic. Plus, the closer two chords are to one another, the better they’ll sound.
Hope that this gives you an idea of what tension and release are, and how to use them in actual music.
About The Author
Umang Bhat is a guitarist from India.
He likes to write about the guitar and help others
improve their guitar playing. He keeps writing about
guitar lessons, articles, and guitar tricks at Guitar Cover.
According to him, all guitar players should help each other,
and guitar lessons and tutorials should be accessible to all,
to make guitar playing a richer experience for everyone.