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How to Create Tension in Music

     In this post I’ll be looking at some ways that you can use to create tension in music by using harmony, rhythm or form and how controlling tension and release cycles can greatly contribute to music expressiveness. Some of them may be more obvious than others but it all comes down to what you are trying to achieve with the music you are creating.

     Culturally, we may have an idea of what can be considered as dissonant music but this varies according to our individual musical experiences. This means that what may be dissonant to one person, may be pleasing to another.

     In a musical composition there are several elements that may be manipulated in order to communicate an intention or trying to convey an emotional state, feeling or idea. One can say that creating contrasts with those elements, building up tension and release cycles, is what conduces to music expressiveness. As such, tension can contribute a great deal to the perception of emotions in music.

     By manipulating musical elements such as structure or form, tempo, melodic contour, harmony or loudness, you may be able to lead or mislead the listener to a specific direction of the musical composition by setting up expectations that are rewarded, violated, or suspended. As said, these fluctuations of tension in structure, rhythm, harmony or melody of a given music have impact on the perception of emotions through music – the theory of ebb and flow. This theory implies that music evokes emotions in patterns of tension and release. This means that the expressive variations in music may serve an aesthetic function by delaying an expected resolution and creating psychological tension.

Creating Tension and Release Cycles:

     As seen, creating tension and release cycles is a way of moving your music forward, either by the building up of rhythm, harmony, melody or dynamics. A release is basically the change that occurs to break that tension you were building up. When you are able to manipulate these cycles, you create a feeling of unrest or expectation, which can develop an emotional experience for the listener. Here are some of the ways that you can use to achieve that.


     The variation in loudness allows for changes in mood and thus this element of music should not be overlooked, under the risk of your music sounding flat or lifeless due to the lack of dynamic contrasts:

     One other way we can work with dynamics is when we relate it with harmonic or interval tension, meaning that this tension can increase (more dissonances), or it can decrease (more consonances). Probably, this is the most obvious way of creating tension or uneasiness music which is by using dissonant harmonic intervals. You can do this by simply by using clusters or polychords to create dissonance and contrast it with more consonant chords in fourths or thirds.

     The following example is derived from the example above but uses more dissonances to create the tension we want. Notice the pattern of tension and release that is created while moving from chord to chord:

Anticipation and Suspension

     This technique can be used as means to create, release, prolong and even preparing the harmonic tension that ensues while you are going from chord to chord. An anticipation is created by presenting the chord tones of the next chord before you actually play it. A suspension is basically the opposite, where the chord tones of the previous chord linger for a little while and then resolve to the new chord. This creates dissonances but also harmonic interest and depth. Typically, the effect can be found at the end of phrases or in cadences, as is the case of the following example, but you don’t have to feel restricted by this.


     Repetition in music is a way of confirming your musical statement or idea. You can use it to present a similar idea with variations; it can be a returning point that gives meaning to the whole composition; or to return and amplify a specific emotion.

     But you can use repetition for a different effect. If you repeat the same musical materials long enough, like in a melodic, rhythmic or harmonic ostinato, and you decide to present something new to the listener, those materials are elevated to a completely new dimension.

     For instance, after the listener got used to the repeating chord progression that is now predictable, you are able to emphasize the newly introduced chord progression. Or you can create some rhythmic tension and again, when it becomes predictable, the changes become even more apparent. This can either be very satisfying, in the form of a release, or you use it to create tension.


     This is simply done by using an harmonic interval that is considered to be dissonant like a minor second or augmented fourth. In this case, the tension and release cycle would be made just by contrasting harmonic dissonance with consonance – when the dissonances are dissipated or resolved.

     For example, dissonances used for a long period of time, used with dynamics, can help you to build excitement by delaying the resolution and thus increasing the sense of an impending doom. Or, introducing a recurring dissonance that comes and goes may help you to tell the listener that something might not be right.


     When a modulation occurs, it means that you are shifting the tonality or changing the key of your song. These can be definitive or temporary modulations but when the change occurs, it always creates a contrast. The tension that is created while you are away from the tonic or the harmonic tension you create before returning to, or confirming the new tonic, can be used to create tension that is released when you finally resolve to the tonic.

     Remember that the further away you move from the tonality you are departing from, the more jarring the contrast created by the modulation.


     Alternating between syncopated and regular beat patterns; a jagged rhythm versus a more straightforward one; or using more notes versus less notes; are all ways of exploring tension in rhythm. But you can also use the rhythm of a melodic phrase and change it’s natural accents. For instance, in a sixteenth note phrase, you accent every five notes only to alternate between a more expectable accent – on every four or eight notes.

     You can also explore using irregular meters and then introducing a simple meter as a way of releasing tension. When a song is more on beat, the introduction of irregular meters, changing accents, and using syncopated rhythms creates tension, by comparison. But the other way around, works too. Again it just depends on the message you want to convey.

     There are always other ways of creating cycles of tension and release. For instance, using texture – more density increases tension while sparsity dissolves it; using tempo – accelerating can create tension while slowing it down releases it (see tempo and metric modulation); using articulations – staccato (or palm mute on guitar) creates tension and longer notes releases it; or ornamentation and timbre changes. You can use all of these to create contrasts and control cycles of release and tension.

     All music, regardless of genre, makes use of these tension and release cycles. The musical devices that you study in order to manipulate these cycles, and how effective you are at using them, can elevate your music enormously. Be sure that you try some of these suggestions in case you haven’t done so yet.

     Happy Composing!

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2 thoughts on “How to Create Tension in Music”

  1. when talking about which scales to use, you gave some tips on chord scale relationships. But when you put chords like C Major 7th and the Ionian scale over it, it has the note F in the scale which does not sound good over the C major chord. when you recorded an example. I can see that you did not use the F note when playing the scale over C. But I cannot see you talking about avoid notes or do you have an article on it?

    Also, when playing chords in succession like C, Am, and Em, they are all tonic chords with no forward motion, so instead of playing C then Em then Am, I might as well play, C -C6- Cmaj 7, and stay with the root C before changing to the next chord function which may be subdominant or dominant! what please are your thoughts? or there is nothing wrong in playing 2 or 3 tonic chords (function)in a row before changing chords? Thanks

    1. Hi Glen,

      I don’t have an article dedicated to avoid notes and I don’t talk much about it because it all depends on context and the way you use those “avoid” notes. With that said, if something sounds bad to your ears, don’t use it 🙂 But making and F sound better in the context of a C major chord, can be a matter of voicing the chord differently, for example: C-F-G-E. In this situation, you no longer have a minor ninth, but a major 7th relationship between F and E. In terms of melody, it also depends on what you are doing, like if I want to approach an E (in the context of Cmaj with the Cmaj chord), or want to use it as a suspension device to create tension (and not necessarily in the context of a cadence).

      Regarding chords, any chord can succeed to any other chord. And again, it’s just a matter of context and ultimately, taste. If you want to play C – C6 – Cmaj 7 and then go to F (i.e.), you’ll have less perceived harmonic movement compared to actually doing C – Am – Em – F (with all the root movement). But it’s fine, either way. It just depends on how much chord voice movement you would want to have in a given situation. Another way of recreating this sound (C – C6 – Cmaj 7) is to think of that chord progression over a C pedal. Harmonically, it is the same, but depending on how you look at it, you may end up making different choices both in terms of how you voice that harmony or in the way you approach it in an improvisation context. I hope this helped. Happy composing!

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