Tension and Release

Wednesday, July 12, 2023 by Andrew Hatfield | Uncategorized

Imagine you are holding a rubber band. Stretch out the rubber band, and you’ve created tension. Relax the rubber band, and it returns to it’s original shape.

In music, we have consonance and dissonance—notes that ring together in a satisfying way, versus notes that are create some tension. All good music has a balance of these two. If there’s only consonance, the music sounds childish. If there’s only dissonance, you’ll hear the sound of lawn chairs clicking together as the crowd walks back to their cars.

What do the notes sound like against the chords?

When you’re taking a solo, the notes you play are heard against the chords that the band is playing. Sure—you might have a whole scale under your fingers, but you should always be listening to how your solo sounds along with the chords. An F# note sounds very different against a D chord, a G chord, a C chord, an Em chord, a Bm chord, etc.

What will the next note be?

Now that you’re listening to your own solo, start to think about what comes next. Can you “hear” in your mind whether the note should go higher or lower in the scale, or stay the same? As you listen to yourself, your mind will help make decisions about what comes next.

Practicing and adding in music theory

If you have someone to practice with, you can take turns playing the chords and soloing. If you’re on your own, you can record a rhythm track on your phone or computer and jam along with the rhythm part you created.

We’re starting from a standpoint of listening to yourself play. As you grow as a musician, music theory might also help you make decisions. For example, if you know what notes are in each chord, you can choose notes right away that are consonant or dissonant without having to hear them first.

Who does this well?

Two improvisers that come to mind that are masters of tension and release are David Rawlings and Derek Trucks. Listen to how David Rawlings plays with tension on Gillian Welch’s song “Annabelle.”