• Krisena

Tension and Release

Composing music is a constant cycle of building tension and relieving it.


To make this easy to see, we'll first look at the form of a normal pop song. We can codify the parts of this form as Verse (V), Pre-chorus (P) and Chorus (C). Forms built on these sections can be called VPC, or VPC form.


There are two important aspects of the VPC: The function of the constituent parts and the way they are put together.


To find out why this is so, let's examine these parts and ask ourselves that they mean. What, after all, is a verse? And what is a chorus, musically speaking?


A verse is characterized by the following traits: Low energy, Expectation, Scatteredness

A chorus on the other hand is the opposite: High energy, Fulfillment, Togetherness


Low energy usually hints at higher energy to come. Togetherness means that the musical elements are percieved as to a greater degree working together to move the song forward, whereas scatteredness means that instruments and lines maintain more independence and freedom to say what they want.


Let's now examine the way they're put together:


Verse - Pre-Chorus - Chorus

If we change out the names of the parts with more explanatory names, we get this:


Low energy - Storing energy - Releasing energy

Looking at it this way, we can see that the VPC is actually the universal musical process of building tension and releasing it. This is why the VPC form is useful when it comes to analyzing form in any musical style, not just pop music. For example in video game music:



intro - ||: (V - V - P) - (V - V - P) - C - (V - V - P) - (V - V - P) - C - (bP - bP - bC - bC) :||


Even without lyrics, we can clearly hear that the tension arc in this track follows pop music form, starting with a VVP triplet at 0:31 and repeating it at 1:15 before reaching a climax with the same characteristics as a normal chorus at 1:56.


Similarily, the bridge is constructed as its own rotation of two pre-choruses and two choruses. Whether the pre-chorus is better described as a pre-chorus or verse type section is up for debate. I went for pre-chorus here, for the reason that it sounds like they could've been the pre-chorus to a verse that could potentially be written for them, rather than the other way around - but it's up for interpretation.


So that's video game music. What about classical music?



After a short intro in the first movement of Edvard Grieg's string quartet in G minor, we can see that the first theme of this sonata-allegro movement is built like any other pop song. It starts at 0:40 with a low energy section in bar 17, starts building serious tension by bar 33 and releases the tension in a burst of energy in bar 45. Like we've seen before, it starts low, then builds and reaches a climax.


However, there are some additional components to this presentation we haven't discussed yet. Let's go deeper!


The Tension Arc


The full form of a climax can be modelled like this:


The Before - The Rise - The Impact - The Fall - The After

The Before and The After lets the listener understand the power of the climax through retrospective contrast and comparison. Imagine a city. A nuclear bomb is dropped. Now imagine the city anew. The difference between the state of the musical landscape before the climax and the musical landscape after the climax tells the listener what they need to know about the power of the climax.


The Rise stores energy and is important for preparing enough energy for the release. A climax can not release more energy than has been stored by The Rise. It's therefore imperative that care is taken here.


The Impact releases the raw power that has been stored up. This is the flames from the rocket when launched. This is where the satisfaction comes from. Denying the listener this phase would be cruel.


The Fall works as the transition back into the new state of calm, letting the listener gently recover from the awe of The Impact.


Comparing to the VPC, we can see that The Before plays the same role as the verse, The Build plays the same role as the pre-chorus, The Impact plays the same role as the chorus, while The Release is the transition back into The After, which is whatever section follows the chorus, usually the next verse, bridge or outro.


In practice


My composition The Shattering of the Earth is modelled as one big tension arc. Let's look at through the model we outlined above.


The Before: The piece starts out with a quiet snare drums and low strings in C# minor.


The Rise: The tension increases by adding instruments, building on harmony and increasing the force.


The Impact: An enormous brass fanfare.


The Fall: The fanfare is taken over by divisi strings, followed by woodwinds and a final dramatic swell that changes the harmonic landscape to a subdominant tonality based in A.


The After: The swell is discharged into a soft Amaj9 landscape where the piece finally leaves us.


Comparing The Before and The After, we can see that one of the major changes that is seperated by The Impact is the change in tonality from C# minor to A major. In a way, you can think of the entire piece as an elaborate transition from one harmonic landscape to another.




The Masterclass


Finally, let's look at the most extreme climax in all of music - the final minutes of Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Keep in mind that this opera has been building to an unreleased climax for the duration of the opera until this point, so we're actually talking about a tension arc of 4 hours.


In case you haven't heard of this opera and this climax before, I recommend checking out the following video below where Stephen Fry explains the deal:




So the whole part from the beginning of the video to 3:52 can reasonably be called The Before. It definitely does help build tension, and it does have some outbursts here and there, but it's nothing compared to The Rise kicking into gear at 3:52.


With shameless amounts of harmonic chromaticism and dynamic bait and switches, The Rise builds tension in repeatedly crashing waves until it can absolutely not hold it in any longer and at 5:02 straight up explodes into The Impact, lasting until 5:27 where it starts winding down as a dizzy Fall until the famous Tristan chord is finally resolved at 6:40, giving The After the last half minute of the opera to itself.

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