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Tension Release
By Dave Byers

 

    Melodies, melodies, melodies. Often we get so hung up on lyrics that we miss the part that
makes the lyric a song. It's incredible how a terrific melody can even carry "average" lyrics into
a song that does exceedingly well. Tension and release is what we often hear about in music,
but here I'm going to dive head 1st into that with melodies in our songs.

This pattern of:
"Get a groove
Jam in the groove
Show some conflict
Resolve back to the groove"

works not only in your melody, but in lead playing as well.

    The pattern doesn't always follow the above 4 line pattern, but it's amazing how often it
does. Consider the most well known song probably of all time by all people:
 

Happy birthday to you (get a groove)
Happy birthday to you (jam in the groove)
Happy birthday dear someone (show some conflict)
Happy birthday to you (resolve back to the groove)

    What do I mean by "get a groove?" Establish a basic pattern for your melody. "Jam in the
groove" means stay very close to that basic pattern with slight alterations. "Show conflict" is
by creating some tension, some difference to the basic pattern, be it an interesting interval, a
length of note change compared to the basic pattern, a rising of the melody notes often to a
held note. "Resolve back to the groove" means to come out of that conflict and resolve back to
the basic pattern that would head toward a verse usually.

Let's look at a few more songs:

Sing this popular gospel chorus -

Our God reigns
Our God reigns
Our God reigns
Our God reigns!

Amazing how similar it is to "happy birthday" isn't it?

One of the most popular Christmas songs of all time:

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright
round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

    Notice the beginning pattern in lines 1 and 2, it's repeat in line 3, the conflict, or "tension" at
the beginning of line 4, then it's release at the end of the line.
 

    This well known gospel hymn below is very similar. Notice the tension and it's release again
in the last line. The held word "art" which if you notice is a high note compared to the rest of
the notes in this melody. Then, the melody comes down and resolves at the end of that line.
The melody "reached it's high point" then sent you home smiling.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art, how great thou art!
 

    Tension and release is not restricted to old hymns, or birthday songs. Look at a well known
song below:

You just call out my name and you know wherever I am
I'll come runnin'(oh , yeah, baby) to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall now all you got to do is call,
and I'll be there (yeah, yeah, yeah,); you've got a friend.

    The 1st 2 lines establish the basic melody, the third jams within that, the last gives us the
tension and at the end of the line it resolves again. Light bulbs go off over my head when I see
such interesting similarities in music. Again, this isn't a 100% "rule" etc. but as you can see,
the concept of tension and release, is incredibly common. Little twists of the spot where the
tension is are allowed and encouraged, though tension is most often near the end of the
section. If you were to create tension early, it'd be tough because you have nothing to be
contrary to yet.

    How about country music? Garth Brooks is one of the most popular, here's one of his most
popular songs:

And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance

    The last line slows down and gets quite, then with the last two words resolves it to the piano
section.

    What about rock and roll? Here's a song so popular, Pat Benetar said in a interview that
she refuses to play it anymore cause she her self is sick of it. (Wish I had that problem)

Hit me with your best shot
Why don't ya hit me with your best shot
Hit me with your best shot
Fire away!

    If you're familiar with the song, the last line provides the escape from the basic pattern.
 

    Here's a older rock and roll song many will know, and many artists have covered:

You ain't nothin but a hound dog, cryin all the time
You ain't nothin but a hound dog, cryin all the time
You ain't never caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine

    The 1st line provides the pattern, the 2nd repeats it to a 4 chord as opposed to the 1 chord.
The 3rdd line begins with the tension and resolves the melody back down from the tension.

    Consider this as another tool to use in your toolbox as a songwriter. You don't always need
every tool in your toolbox to fix a problem, or create a song, but it's sure nice to have more
than just a hammer and duct tape. Although I've heard of people who say they can do anything
with a hammer and duct tape. ;-)
 

Dave Byers

Dave is the founder of "writingsongs.com and the Christian Songwriters group. He has been
writing songs since 1979. His book "Songwriting fundamentals" is available at
http://mattressemporium.com/dave/songwriting_book.htm