The Important Roles of Tension and Release in Songwriting

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 18, 2010

 The alternate building and releasing of tension, or conflict and resolution, keeps our listeners’ attention alive. 

• Lyric conflict consists in raising questions and answering them, posing problems and resolving them: 

Problem: “I once was lost” 

Resolution:“but now am found” 

Problem: “was blind” 

Resolution: “but now I see.” 

Problems and their solutions are not always this rapid-fire, of course.  Sometimes it takes a whole verse or two to set up a problem and a whole chorus to resolve it. Not every song has lyric conflict. Some worship songs, for example, may consist of a pouring out of one’s heart in love to the Lord—no conflict there. 

• Harmonic conflict has to do with the continual tantalizing of our ears with harmonic tensions—hanging, unresolved tones that cry out to move up or down to a place of rest in the next chord. 

• Rhythmic contrast is created by a series of short notes coming to rest on a long note, or a syncopated passage settling back into stride. 

• Melodic conflict is a combination of harmonic and rhythmic factors. Every song has it constantly—long tones following short ones, melody notes hanging suspended before resolving to the next tone. Since melody consists simply of pitch, a component of harmony, and duration, a component of rhythm, it’s hard to divorce melody from either rhythm or harmony. But conflict is what keeps music interesting—the alternate building and releasing of tension. With too little conflict, music quickly becomes boring. 

• However, a word of caution. With too much conflict, the song may become confusing and hard for the listener to take in. Generally, too many chord changes, too many syllables and too many wide melodic leaps, all  at a rapid tempo, may create a frenetic quality that can defeat your song as fast as too little conflict. 

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