On Tension and Release

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For my recent visit to Ireland Unlimited, part of my brief was to work with the chorus on the concept of ‘tension and release’. This is one of those useful notions we bandy about all the time, though it’s not until you have to explain them that you stop and think about them in detail. So these are some of the thoughts I had when I was preparing this session.

The metaphor of tension and release in music is a surprisingly global one. It works in multiple dimensions both musically and experientially.

So, in emotional or experiential terms we might think of it as:

Anticipation – Arrival
Unstable – Stable
Exertion – Relaxation
Desire – Fulfilment

As a physical metaphor, we might think in terms of the controlled stretching and relaxation of an exercise band, or the winding up and release of a catapult.

In bodily terms, we might imagine the binary rhythms of inhaling and exhaling and the heart’s pumping, or the contraction and relaxation of muscles in action, or the intensification into release of orgasm.

All these manifestations are essentially about dynamic processes, they have life and movement, but they are nonetheless quite varied in their qualities.

But the musical dimensions in which we experience tension and release are likewise quite varied.

In rhythmic or formal terms, short-term repetition builds up tension, which is released with the change in pattern. The forward momentum of the sequence comes from this constraint and break-out pattern, though you can get even more inner drive from exact rather than sequential repetition (which is why I think of this as a rhythmic rather than a melodic dimension).

Melodies often carry patterns of anticipation and arrival (or, as L.B. Meyer famously theorised it, implication and realisation). Think of a tune like ‘The Way You Look Tonight’: it plays with its central motif at successive pitches working up the scale, creating the need to hear the pattern completed by the arrival at the top tonic, whereafter the emotional build-up is released by the octave leap downwards. Melodies work by creating needs that they go on to fulfil.

Harmony is rich with implications too. You have the distinction between settled and unsettled feelings in consonant and stronger-flavoured chords. You have the dimension of harmonic charge as a measure of tonal distance that can operate either in tandem with or somewhat independently from chord type. And the way that chords are voiced can intensify or mitigate the harmony’s inherent characteristics.

So, one of the reasons why the metaphor of tension and release is so useful is because it is so flexible, adapting itself to many musical and emotional situations.

Another is the way integrates analysis and feeling. The point about the metaphor is that it describes an essentially experiential dimension of music: it is all about the effect that the music has upon people. But it is also susceptible to thought. You can interrogate music to discover these patterns. And the analytical process isn’t separate from the process of feeling the effects. Hence, it helps us to understand music, joining intelligence with empathy.

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