What I wanted to ramble on about today was the tension created within songs and music. Tension is the critical component of the tension and release principle that makes music work as an emotional medium. Just as within the paradox of good and evil where good cannot exist unless there is evil to substantiate it as such, so the climactic nature of music is nonexistent without the tension leading up to it. Now there are many different types of tension-building mechanisms within music as we know it. Here is a partial list of the more obvious ones:
1. Melodic tension
2. Structural tension
3. Volume tension
a. Increased or building up volume
b. Decreased volume (similar to the effect of a whisper)
4. Dynamic tension
5. Instrumental tension
6. Speed or note frequency tension
Melodic tensionis the one I was really pondering today. It is a much more subtle instrument and may go completely unnoticed. But its effect is powerful and sublime. Many of us learned in our early musical training that tension is created when chromatic intervals are strategically placed within a major scale. Based upon this foundation, the so-called Greek modes are constructed with ever increasing numbers of chromatic intervals which in turn increases the tensile nature of the scale. This phenomenon has also been described as changing the color of the music from bright to darker and darker.
But there is a more subtle way of creating melodic tension which may go unnoticed most of the time. It is “absence”. Let me demonstrate. A melodic pattern is set firmly in place. Then one of the prominent notes is left out; just like that. Most times the previous note or following note will be held longer to fill in the space, thus making its absence unnoticeable to the untrained ear. The listener’s brain is following along with the melody and when that note is missing, its presence is so obvious and necessary that the brain just inserts the note in for you and in turn creates a bit of subtle tension. And each time the melody is repeated and the note is missing, that tension is increased to the point where the brain is faced with a dilemma; “maybe the note doesn’t belong at all?” at which point it thinks it made a mistake inserting it in the first place. Pretty insidious if you think about it- the way music can tease the brain into feeling a certain way.
Certain chords may also use the principle of absence to elicit a desired “feel”. I was taught to play inverted chords on the guitar, which we also call “power chords”. They are called inverted because instead of 1,3,5 for example, the chord will be played 5,3,1. But the power chord I learned was missing the 3 note altogether. Gives it a real grungy feel and makes the chord work perfectly for major or minor since there is no 3rd to lower. So the listener’s brain goes “this chord sounds correct but is it major
or minor?” Voila: tension- it is both!
The principle of melodic absence can also be used in a strumming pattern or keyboard pattern. I’m thinking of the boom-chik, boom-chik rhythm in so many songs, and I recently heard this song (I’m Not Who I Was by Brandon Heath) where the boom was just left out so what you end up with is a (blank)-chik, (blank)-chik feel (which should not be confused for a blond girl). Then the hammer-ons inserted in there provide some much-needed release; very effective, I thought.
Anybody else have some instances of melodic tension you have noticed (or not noticed) in your listening and playing?