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As a hobby composer I often reason about the flow of a composition and I often find myself inventing words for what the composition does during a certain passage.

E.g. I found that many guitar riffs start with an on-beat part (which I call the "square" part) followed by an off-beat part (which I call the "off" part). Listen to "Brown Sugar" (Stones) to understand what I mean.

Then in longer compositions I find that initially things may not progess much but then lead to a complete desaster, from which the composition needs to recover, typically using a cadence (at least I have a word for that) bringing things to a conclusion.

Other compositions begin with a slight (e.g. by starting with the IV) or strong tension and then meander a little bit, getting to get back to the tonic and develop things from there. "Helter Skelter" (Beatles) does this in an extreme way.

Even though I used harmony terms in my description above, the same patterns/idioms apply to anyting tension related. It could be melody, the relation of the melody to the chords, the rhythm of even the accompaniment.

My problem is: I don't know the correct words to talk about these things. Things like a "cliffhanger" in TV shows or "suspense". I believe there are only some handful of such patterns and the good composer is distinguished by composing (sic!) these patterns in interesting and pleasing ways.

So

  • Does anybody know where I could learn about such terminlogy?
  • or can list some established terms for some idioms?
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It sounds like you're thinking in terms of resolution. Consonance and dissonance are also important concepts, describing how harmonious or conflicting concurrent notes are together. (This is ultimately related to factors such as the lowest possible ratio of the notes' frequencies, their timbres, how long we hear them together, their melodic and harmonic contexts, and what the listener's expectations are.)

To many people's ears/tastes, a certain degree of consonance and return to an established tonal center is considered resolved. It's common for a piece to move away from a center and for its notes to grow less dissonant, and at this point the music's unresolved.

When things are brought back to a set of notes less dissonant together and close to the original chord, a piece is said to have resolved.

In rhythm, starting between the main beats, especially when holding through them, is usually called syncopation. This may be thought of as "playing on the ands" if we're counting "1 and 2 and 3...".

I don't consider Helter Skelter unresolved, but it has distorted guitar timbre with loud percussion and the guitar strings are hit so hard that the main note goes sharp, clashing with the tonal center, E, in a dissonant way.

Note that we can speak of resolution within different aspects. You can resolve a melody by returning it to where it started from or by repeating something said earlier. You can resolve chords by "going back to one", or returning to the starting chord. You can also resolve a composition by returning to a theme, sometimes with a new twist as though someone went on a journey and returned home having learned something.

Chopin's well-known Raindrops Prelude does all of these. He starts with a simple phrase, explores a bit with some departures, into a darker minor key... Well, you can listen for yourself, but he resolves within phrases, within sections, and within the entire piece, and it's a pretty emotional tour.

Please note that I've tried to describe things in terms of conventions here. If we were talking about 12-tone or other, less usual sorts of music, we'd consider other opinions of what constitutes resolution.

  • Kind of. Consonance, dissonance and syncopation are among the means to tell a musical story, but they are not the plot itself. See what you wrote about Raindrops: I now know from your description what elements Chopin used. I could write a piece which uses the same elements (like "going into a dark minor key"), but my piece could have a different plot. What I am after is a way to describe Raindrops, so I could write a piece with the same plot, but not necessarily the same elements. – Martin Drautzburg Sep 26 '14 at 5:24
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In a general, introductory sense, in order to develop a more comprehensive facility with tension in your composition, I'd challenge you to change your perspective.

The large majority of your examples indicate a relation to pitch (you talked about harmony extensively, mentioned melody briefly, and wafted by rhythm). The key here is to be simultaneously and equally aware of all elements:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Articulation
  • Timbre
  • Tempo
  • Dynamics
  • Texture

to name only a few. Realize that tension can be and is created through the manipulation and mixing of these elements; each infinitely customizable. There are of course other things as well which relate but would not fit under the umbrella of "musical elements". Such as, a listener's expectations for the music.

At the risk of getting too zen - realize then that you're not actually looking for tension at all, but the most appropriate means of contrast. Just think on that for awhile.

I would also highly recommend you learn about musical forms. Longer pieces of music are rarely described as "...not progess[ing] much but then lead[ing] to a complete d[i]saster, from which the composition needs to recover...". Having a proper understanding of form however, would enable you to describe the part that doesn't progress much as the Exposition while the area leading to a "complete d[i]saster" would be the Development, for example.

  • Exposition and Development are certainly among the terms I am looking for. Musical structure as far as I am aware of it typically refers to longer parts. But similar structures can be found within just four bars. I believe the thing is somewhat self-similar, almost "fractal". I hesitate to call the first bar of a guiar riff or a melody the "exposition". I am not sure about "contrast" and in my thinking I think more about "expected" vs. "unexpected", but to some extent you can equate "contrast" with "unexpected". – Martin Drautzburg Sep 26 '14 at 7:57
  • @MartinDrautzburg - you are incorrect here - musical structures can be applied to pieces of any length. There is a Webern piece written in sonata form that is seven measures long. Different types of musical form do not accurately describe music. A four-bar phrase might be the "A" material of a binary, ternary, or rondo form. Regarding contrast, it is precisely your thinking that is limiting you. If you prefer your opinion over others, then do not ask questions if you are not prepared for the answers. – jjmusicnotes Sep 26 '14 at 13:02

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