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I understand that harmonic tension occurs when you hang on a chord which "wants" to resolve, like a chord with a leading tone or certain dissonant intervals. Are there other sources of harmonic tension?

What are non-harmonic sources of tension?

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  • You can also have tension when the listener isn't sure where the actual tonic chord of the music would be. For example, the first section of the Sense8 theme jumps around a few potential keys, which (in my opinion) creates tension right away.
    – cloudfeet
    Jun 28, 2018 at 17:20
  • Whatever you used to be diong, do the opposite. Surprise the listener. Then go back to something you used to be doing to reslove the tension.
    – user45266
    Jun 29, 2018 at 22:47

4 Answers 4

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The pause is one that comes straight to mind - the rhythm stops, and everything hangs for some moments. Rubato has a similar effect, as do rallentando and accelerando.

Crescendo and decrescendo can also be used to produce tension - especially in the way Beethoven used it. Never felt certain that it wasn't his frustration showing through...

A key change is also effective, although I've never felt an effect lasting more than a bar or two.

EDIT: 5/4 in itself tends to create tension. There have been several themes for suspense type tv programmes that have used 5/4. As already mentioned, a change of time sig. for a single bar is a good ploy. Particularly in a piece with a good foot-tapping rhythm. The listener just gets disturbed. (As does the player who may not be expecting it !)

Change of instrumentation, most effective within an orchestral setting, will bring large mood changes to a piece.

And, of course, the other factor that makes music - silence. Unexpected tacet is truly effective - whether it's in an orchestra or a rock band.

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  • "5/4 in itself tends to create tension. There have been several themes for suspense type" true that, Halloween's theme can prove it. Jun 29, 2018 at 10:59
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    @DontVoteMeDown - and there's Holst's Mars.
    – Tim
    Jun 29, 2018 at 11:05
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    @DontVoteMeDown - Classic example of a "TV suspense" theme in 5/4 - Mission: Impossible Jun 29, 2018 at 12:01
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In very general terms, I'd say that deliberately withholding some element of music that the listener knows (or thinks they know) is coming will always build tension.

It could be a harmonic a resolution that's a long time coming - for example, if you use Emin, Fmaj and Gmaj chords, then the listener might assume you're in the key of Cmaj/Amin, because that's traditional key that fits those in best. If you hold off from actually using either of those chords, it creates tension.

In dubstep and related genres, there's "the drop", which is where the artist deliberately withholds the heavy bass beat for as long as possible, creating tension. (See this Lonely Island sketch.)

Or perhaps skipping a beat that the listener really feels you should play (like leaving the first beat of the bar silent).

Overall, figure out something obvious that your listener wants and expects to happen next, and see if you can delay it.

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Syncopation is a very common form of non-harmonic tension. From Wikipedia,

Syncopation involves a variety of rhythms which are in some way unexpected which make part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat. More simply, syncopation is a general term for "a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm": a "placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur." The correlation of at least two sets of time intervals. Also known as an "Uneven movement from bar to bar".

There are a variety of ways to achieve syncopation, including:

  • Carrying a beat over the bar line
  • Accenting the "weak" beat instead of the "strong" beat, for example in 4/4 accenting the 2 and the 4 instead of the 1 and the 3
  • Dropping the "strong" beat
  • Polyrhythms, or playing two different time signatures against one another. A common trope is playing 2 against 3. How to play 2 against 3 polyrhythm evenly?

Playing multiple notes in the space for a differrent number of beats will also create tension. If you play a triplet over 2 beats then that's a hemiola.

In addition, gradually increasing the tempo, accelerando, is an easy way to increase tension as is increasing the volumne.

Switching time signatures will increase tension as will creating melodies that are a little longer or a little shorter than the standard 32-bar length. In American old-time these are called "crooked tunes" and will drop or add a half-bar to two bars of length to the A or B part of an AABB or AABA tune.

Big jumps up or down in the melody can create excitement. The general rule is "Big step up, small steps down," or vice versa.

Finally: silence. Silence can create enormous tension, especially in music that's "notey".

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    To go along with the accelerando...sometimes not increasing the tempo when the music really feels like it wants to take off will increase tension. This goes along with Tim's comment above regarding Beethoven's crescendos, as well. The 1st mvt of the Moonlight Sonata has a beautiful crescendo which creates musical tension as one wants so badly to give into the passion and run away with the tempo. As the tempo holds steady, however, the self restraint increases the tension in the music.
    – Heather S.
    Jun 29, 2018 at 3:27
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    Syncopation in pop type songs is so commonplace now, it's hard to find songs without 'pushed' notes over the barlines.
    – Tim
    Jun 29, 2018 at 8:37
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    @HeatherS. - so true. Many many times crescendo is translated as cresc/accel. And it's the holding back of tempo that underlines its success.
    – Tim
    Jun 29, 2018 at 8:39
  • @Tim, yes, that is one of the most important things I learned as a performer was to keep the tempo steady despite changes in dynamics. And knowing that, now as a composer I find it is important to mark accelerandos/ritards only in very specific places in order to communicate that the tempo is to remain steady everywhere else.
    – Heather S.
    Jun 29, 2018 at 10:49
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    Listen to this version of the 15th c. Spanish song Un Sarao de la Chacona. The opening 16 bars are highly syncopated, and when the second phrase arrives in simple 3 you can feel a distinct “resolution” of tension. Jun 30, 2018 at 5:35
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Once you have established a major or minor tonality, almost anything without the tonic and third (combined) will sound unresolved. That works well enough to keep a lot of pop music going. This is accomplished through simple chords of stacked thirds (Em, D, etc.), or by using suspended notes. The 4th and tonic sus4 chords sound particularly unresolved.

Briefly stepping outside of the key works well in jazzier settings. For example, if you are in the key of C, moving directly to a Dbmaj7 chord then immediately back to Cmaj7 creates tension and release. This works particularly well with minor chords and chords that contain extensions. (For example, Cmaj7 Dm7 Ab9 G9 Cmaj7, which is actually a b5 substitution.)

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  • b5 substitution commonly called a tritone substitution.
    – Tim
    Jun 28, 2018 at 16:12
  • Aren't these all examples of harmonic tension? The OP is looking for non-harmonic examples.
    – S. Burt
    Jun 28, 2018 at 17:35
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    @S. Burt, From the OP: "Are there other sources of harmonic tension?"
    – ScottM
    Jun 28, 2018 at 18:03

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