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#9 Anxiety Is The Spice Of Life!


Kelisms #9

Have you ever wondered what hit songs, films, books, television shows, even magazine articles have in common?

There is an element of drama!

Even in sit-coms, rom-coms, tom-toms, well maybe not so much with tom-toms, but there is something dramatic happening that brings change to the person or people it is happening to. Sometimes it’s what the character is doing, what is being done to the character, or events out of their control they have to cope with. It can be one thing, it can be many things. The best examples have at least two, tugging the character in different directions.

In song writing, we call this tension. And we can do it three ways, at least:


The lyrics we choose explain the subject’s predicament or situation:

• A man loving two women,

• a woman no longer loving her husband,

• an angry boss or father figure,

• a cheating partner,

• a swindle or scam,

• an unexpected event.

Whatever it is, there is something the subject of the song must overcome to move forward; we produce drama or tension.


Throughout the centuries of man creating music, we have trained listeners to expect certain things:

• a phrase that repeats

• an upward lift to the chorus

• if the melody goes up, it often comes down again

• coming back to the tonic or dominant note of the chord at the end of a major section.

If we don’t deliver these and other examples listeners have been trained by us to expect, we create tension.

Another way to introduce tension into the melody is to use notes outside the usual selection of tonic, harmonic and dominant; notes we would usually use as passing notes. I find using the 6th note of the chord works particularly well and is pleasing to the ear, and adding something a little different. A fantastic example of this is Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. Have a listen and you will notice that from the very first note, he is producing tension with his melody.


Not to be confused with the former example, here I am referring more to the chords being used, rather than the notes of the melody. There are some standard patterns:

• Starting a song in the Root chord

• Ending a chorus, or the song itself on the root chord

• Moving away from the root chord and coming back to it, often from the 5th or Dominant chord to produce a resolve of built up tension, produced from

moving away from the root chord.

There are others of course, but whenever the listener is presented with something different, or unexpected, it produces tension.

A common example is at the end of the first chorus, the final two chords are the Dominant (5th) and the Root (1st). However, at the end of the chorus leading into a Bridge, the chords become the Dominant (5th) and the next chord up in pitch, the 6th chord of the scale. In C major, this would be:

Chorus 1 G – C

Chorus 2 G – C

Chorus 3 G – Am

A change from the expected doesn’t have to jar the senses like playing a discordant chord would. It just needs to be unexpected.

It isn’t all about tension however. While we want some tension, we don’t want to overdo it either, or it will lose the impact when we really want it. It’s a good idea to introduce a little tension, and then give the listener a release of that tension. This is usually done by giving them something they are expecting, or by moving back to the Root chord. Throughout the song we want the tension to build until the big release. This is often accomplished in the Bridge or instrumental solo section.

So there is another building block in out tool kit of songwriting. Play with it, see what you like. See what your audiences like!

Till next time,

Keep rockin’ and a rollin’


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