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If I am in the key of C and I play a G major chord it is considered the dominant chord in the key of C and as a result it resolves to the C chord. But if I play a melody without any chords in C major and play a G note, does the note itself also resolve or is it only when we have chords do we talk about tension and resolution?

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  • You could research the concept of "leading tones". Should at least partly answer your question.
    – user45266
    Feb 6, 2020 at 18:24
  • @user45266 indeed. This makes me wonder, though, about melodic resolution in the absence of leading tones (for example, a melodic line that descends to the tonic). Is there a term for that?
    – phoog
    Feb 7, 2020 at 13:35
  • @phoog I mean, maybe "voice-leading"? Although that's so context-dependent that it's hardly applicable... There probably isn't a great phrase for it.
    – user45266
    Feb 7, 2020 at 16:58

4 Answers 4

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Think of playing a broken chord stacatto style. Though the notes don't play at the same time, the brain remembers the notes it hears and builds the intervals. The same happens with a melody; the brain remembers the notes and expects certain notes; when a different note is heard, it creates tension.

Interesting discussion, by the way. It's giving me some arrangement ideas.

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  • Trying to understand how this answers the question.
    – Tim
    Feb 6, 2020 at 17:24
  • @Tim - I think this answer is trying to imply that the answer to the question is yes, melody notes also get involved in tension and resolution.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 6, 2020 at 18:11
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...But if I play a melody without any chords in C major and play a G note, does the note itself also resolve

Whatever music set C major as the key by definition is creating tonal identities for the various tones and those tones do have melodic tendencies.

But there are some things to unpack about resolution and tendencies.

Consider both perfect and half cadences can end phrases and therefore are points of stability. By extension you can say the tonic and dominant tones are both points of stability within the key. Further, as points of stability they don't need resolution. Of course there is the hierarchy of dominant as an intermediate ending and tonic as a final ending, but both are endings of some kind.

Tendency tones are those that have a melodic tendency to step in a certain directions. Basically these are tones of the dominant resolving to the tonic chord. The leading tone moves up to the tonic, the subdominant moves down to the mediant, the supertonic moves down to the tonic. The dominant does not move as it it present in both dominant and tonic chords, which sort of reinforces the previous idea that the dominant can act as a point of stability.

This seems to set up a contradiction: the dominant chord can be stable, but its tones have a tendency (a necessity) to resolve to the tonic.

I think the way to reconcile those two ideas is to pay attention to the placement of the tones within the meter and phrase.

Consider the barline and the supertonic in this example...

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...when the supertonic comes after the barline as part of a dominant chord at the end of a phrase, it is at a point of partial stability. Notice that a double bar indicates a phrase ending, and when the line continues it leaps up to the dominant. In that case the supertonic isn't acting like a tendency tone, because it is part of the phrase ending.

When we get to the final ending the supertonic precedes the barline as part of the penultimate dominant chord. In this metrical position it does act as a tendency tone and descends to the tonic.

So, melody tones do move with a sense of resolution, but it is important to understand how those tendencies work rhythmically within phrases.

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Whilst G chord is the dominant of key C, it won't always resolve to C. That's where the tension/release can come in. We almost expect a G harmony to resolve to C, so when it doesn't - there's tension!

Tension/release can happen with certain notes in a series, so don't think it always needs chords or harmony, but since music is rarely just a single melody line, unaccompanied, it doesn't get experienced that often.

The same DOES NOT happen with note G. It can - and usually does - go anywhere else.

Your best bet is to look at quite a few pieces/songs in key C, find some G notes, and make 'note' of what comes next.

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Yes, melodies relate to the tonic just as chords do. And the bass line of a piece IS a melody of a kind, when it reaches the dominant it has a tension towards the tonic. (That tension may be immediately gratified, delayed or even frustrated of course. But it exists!)

Melodies generally (but not invariably) end on the tonic. The previous note will very likely be part of the dominant chord.

Exceptions will be easy to find. Not all music, with or without chords, inhabits a world of functional harmony. But where harmonic tension IS the game, melodies have it too.

Harmony can intensify the tension of course. Look at a dominant CHORD compared to the dominant NOTE. In C major, that's G, B, D. G - particularly when it's the bass note - wants to move to C. B (the 'leading note' - wonder why it's called that? :-) wants to step up to C too. In combination a tension arguably more than the sum of its parts. Add an F - which has tension towards E) to make a dominant 7th chord and it's intensified even more. But that potent F -B tritone is just the combination of two notes with individual tensions.

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  • Ok but I read that the dom 7 chord has a tritone which creates tension. Isnt this tension because of the interval and not because of the individual notes in the chord want to resolve to the tonic?
    – user35708
    Feb 6, 2020 at 11:21
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    First, don't READ about the tritone creating tension - play some tritones, EXPERIENCE the tension! Yes, the dominant 7th chord has intensified pull towards the tonic compared with just a plain dominant note. See my extended answer above.
    – Laurence
    Feb 6, 2020 at 16:58
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    If G wants to move to C, what is it that moves to G in the C triad?
    – Tim
    Feb 6, 2020 at 17:26
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    G when it ISN'T the bass note often stays where it is.
    – Laurence
    Feb 7, 2020 at 0:47
  • @armani the tritone isn't the only source of tension in a V7 chord. The V-I cadence developed centuries before the V7 chord did. I'll post an answer later today if I can make the time.
    – phoog
    Feb 7, 2020 at 13:38

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