During my formal musical education, I experienced an epiphany about how music works. It happened when one of my professors said that all music is nothing more than tension and release, sound waves (or lack thereof) that depict conflict and resolution. Boiling down music theory to this binary view is, of course, not sufficient for studying the nuts and bolts of composition and performance, but it does provide a tantalizingly elegant framework for analysis. Armed with this thought, I began to listen to all music while asking, “Am I hearing a period of relative tension, or release, and what is the source of that feeling?” It became a kind of game I would play in real-time while listening to music.
Thinking in terms of tension and release, it isn’t much of a stretch to substitute literary terminology—namely, conflict and resolution. Add climax as the edge of the coin and you begin to see the comparison of music to narrative (even where no words are present). Themes are stated in melody, developed over a changing bed of harmony, and conflict takes hold in the form of complementary musical devices, such as rhythm, tempo, timbre and dynamics, before coming to a head and dissipating again. Waves of tension may break and recede many times over the course of a single piece of music, just as a narrative may include several conflicts of varying scale over the course of a story. Once words are added to this ebb and flow, a whole other dimension is introduced, a new story containing plot points that parallels the musical story (or not, it’s certainly not required). In any case, I will leave the analysis of words on their own to scholars of poetry, but even a literary layman such as myself knows that music can add a potent kick to words or water them down, either complementing or juxtaposing.
The next level of my game of tension and release involves identifying their sources. This requires us to understand a few basic musical concepts. As a music teacher, it behooves me to give a crash course in the fundamentals for the uninitiated and explain basic qualities and sources of tension in each. It is interesting to play the tension and release game yourself (for bonus points, see if you can identify where that feeling is coming from). The basic elements in music we will cover today include melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, tempo, dynamics, and form.
Melody is any series of notes in succession. Amazingly, there are only 12 commonly used notes in Western music, and you’d be correct in guessing that melodies are recycled and reused over time. The primary melody in most popular songs is the series of notes that are sung. A melody, on its own, may provide tension if it jumps around, making big leaps between notes that are far away from each other. Most recorded music contains more than just a primary melody, as notes from other instruments are usually played at the same time as the vocal melody. Secondary melodies appear in other instruments (i.e., a guitar riff, a phrase played on violin). The melody is often the thing that hooks us into a song, and some people (including myself) internalize the melody long before they even hear the words of the song. If we consider the main melody set against the backdrop of the notes played by other instruments, we get harmony, which can be another source of tension.
… all music is nothing more than tension and release, sound waves (or lack thereof) that depict conflict and resolution.
Harmony is the sound of two or more pitches (i.e., notes) being played at the same time. This occurrence produces what is known as a chord. In general, when notes are played very close together, more tension is produced. I will not go into a full discussion of which combinations of notes produce tension; for now, it is enough to know that some seem inherently offensive while others are pleasing (i.e., discordant vs. concordant). As time goes on through a piece, each instrument may play different notes, and the harmony changes (sometimes quite rapidly). This harmonic sequence that occurs as time passes is also known as the chord progression, and offers moments of tension and release. Once a piece of music has begun, our ears are quickly drawn to a root chord; this is the song’s harmonic centre of gravity, so to speak, and where it sounds natural to rest or conclude a song. In contrast to this harmonic resting place, other chords produce varying degrees of tension. As I mentioned, there are only 12 common notes in Western music, and so, like melodies, chord progressions tend to be recycled again and again, crossing all the musical eras.
There are certain melodic and harmonic devices that can be used and associated with certain feelings. One of the first concepts that music students learn as a part of ear training is that major chords sound happy and minor chords sound sad. This is especially useful when introducing young children to theoretical musical concepts. To illustrate this further, consider the well-known pop song, “Losing My Religion” by REM. This song is in a minor (i.e., sad) key. Now listen to the same song with the pitches digitally adjusted to turn the key of the song from minor to major. Take note of the way the Michael Stipe’s melody now evokes a different emotion simply because of the pitch.
Timbre is the quality of the sound of an instrument (separate from the pitch). One can instantly distinguish between a violin and a guitar or between a piano and a saxophone, even if all instruments play the exact same pitch. Moreover, any combination of instruments may be played together to produce a new timbre. Timbres may range from soothing to abrasive, with some sounds seeming inherently soft, light, and inoffensive to the ear, while others are hard, dark, even monstrous or offensive. New sounds are being invented all the time by music producers hunched over laptops and synthesizer workstations in production studios. For this reason, timbre is one of the most intriguing areas of music. Unlike harmony and melody, the area of timbre deals with a potentially infinite number of sounds and is without a comparable paradigm. This makes timbre akin to an infinitely expanding universe. New sounds are still being invented, whereas melodies and harmonic progressions are created using the same 12 notes, recycled time and time again.
Just over 100 years ago, Igor Stravinsky was showing the world his mastery of orchestral timbres with scores for the ballets “Firebird,” “Petrushka,” and “The Rite of Spring.” Had Stravinsky been born today, perhaps he would be an electronic music producer, restlessly inventing new sounds and charting new sonic territory. He might also be considered a contemporary of Trent Reznor, the man behind Nine Inch Nails, who may be just as inventive as Stravinsky. “Closer,” found on The Downward Spiral, is a prime example of Reznor’s ability to build tension masterfully by adding layer upon layer of sonic texture atop a grinding, writhing rhythm. The lyric is violent and hungry, filled with sexual imagery, but you barely need to hear the words to know what Reznor intends you to feel.
Rhythm, the placement in time of each note in a song, is a concept familiar to most of us. Rhythm is often identified with drums, but all instruments adhere to rhythm, playing their parts against an underlying implied beat (the steady pulse which feels most natural to clap along with or tap your foot to the song). A song’s feel can be affected drastically by its time signature. The time signature is how many beats are in each measure of music. Most popular music is in 4/4. If you tap your foot to the beat of the song, you can count to four over and over again through most of the song.
Unlike harmony and melody, the area of timbre deals with a potentially infinite number of sounds and is without a comparable paradigm.
To see how a change in rhythm can affect the feeling of a song, consider Chris Cornell’s version of the popular Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean.” Cornell changes a lot about the music, including slowing down the tempo and changing the time signature from 4/4 to 3/4. If you tap your foot to the beat of the song, you can count to three (or six, whichever you like) through most of the song. Cornell’s version draws out the tale of woe from snappy lyrics about an obsessed fan.
Once the beat of a song is in motion, how the other instruments are placed against the underlying beat can cause tension. A section that is densely packed with notes is often a source of tension, as are surprising sporadic rhythmic figures that seem to come out of nowhere. Predictable, steady, repeated rhythmic figures will usually feel relaxed.
Tempo is simply the speed of the song. People often confuse rhythm with tempo, but the same rhythm can be played by instruments at a slow speed or a fast speed. One of my favourite, infrequently-used musical devices is changing a tempo mid-song. For instance, consider Franz Ferdinand’s pop-rock hit of 2004 “Take Me Out.” The song starts at one speed and the band brings it to a grinding halt then brings it to a slower beat as part of the song. Consider the effect of tempo change in the classic “Dueling Banjos.” In that song, the tempo increases as the conversation between the banjo and guitar progresses.
Dynamics are essentially how loud or soft an instrument is played. Dynamics can vary dramatically from one musical phrase to the next and one musical section to the next. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain often employed dynamics to create tension and release quite effectively by simply having a quiet verse and a loud chorus. Listen, for example, to “Heart Shaped Box.”
Form is the structure of the piece. While form is not a sonic device, song structure is worth considering in light of our comparison between a piece of music and a narrative. Form dictates the repetition of a musical idea and raises the importance of lyrics or musical ideas by placing them within the map of the song. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “Under the Bridge” provides a good example of a song’s introduction and outro working like a prologue and epilogue. In this case, these sections contain unique musical ideas that are not heard anywhere else in the song. The outro, particularly, works as a giant release, a cathartic coda that resolves the tension of preceding sections.
While the view that music is simply tension and release may seem simplistic, it does provide a ground through which to compare music’s basic conceptual framework with analogous mechanisms within literature. This introduction to the elements of melody, harmony, timbre, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and form may not bestow someone with the depth that comes with a more advanced knowledge of music theory, but I hope it proves a useful set of tools for non-music experts looking to combine basic musicology with literary criticism in service of hybrid song analysis.
Ed Smith is a music instructor and freelance musician based in Edmonton, Alberta, who holds a bachelor of music with jazz specialty from St. Françis-Xavier University. He is a full-time member of the “Derina Harvey Band,” a Celtic-rock group, as bassist and keyboardist. Ed has been an active member of the music community in both Eastern Canada and Alberta for 20 years as a performer, teacher, studio musician, and arranger. During that time, he has performed in many groups that span many genres, including rock, blues, jazz, country, salsa, funk, and reggae.