Many composers, musicians, and music lovers enjoy the forms brought about through tension and release.  The thrill and excitement of creating emotions and drama, all building up to a climax that is then resolved is about as natural–and human–as it gets.  The theme of tension and release governs both the natural world and our lives.  In the most elemental sense, energy is required to do tasks, and when the energy is applied, this buildup allows the task to be completed, or released. On Earth, forces of weather shape the landscape, leaving changed environments behind.  In nature, the need to survive bears heavily upon organisms, causing them to use energy to bring about change and greater safety and stability.  As humans, we constantly struggle with ourselves, other people, our work, and our world, all in order to bring about solutions and better resolutions than the ones we had.

Typical Tension Graph
Typical Tension Graph

The most common tension and release strategy is the slow buildup to the “golden section” area–nearly 2/3rds into the work of music, literature, or other art, follwed by a quicker release.  This is one of the most natural ways to bring about a rise and fall in intensity.  However, I’d like to propose a modification to this tried-and-true form that I learned from a composition teacher of mine, Tawnie Olson.  I’ve decided to call it “The Pre-Apex Drop”.

This topic of rise and fall came up as we were discussing my work on a percussion piece.  Professor Olson had suggested that I look into releasing tension temporarily right before the climax, only to raise the tension back up very fast, and to a point that was higher than the point at which it first descended.  This second apex would be the true apex, the most important escalation point of the piece, and the drop before it would be the “pre-apex drop”.

Pre-Apex Drop
Pre-Apex Drop

This is a remarkably simple, yet effective, strategy to deal with formal tension.  It makes a lot of sense for composers who are looking to:

  • Build tension in a unique way.
  • Create drama throughout the piece in a non-static and less predictable fashion within the building of tension.
  • Keep the listener guessing.
  • Extend the length of their buildup to the climax.

This tool is applicable in many other circumstances.  It can work in small buildups, or even reversed.  For example, if you have a release in tension that you want to add drama to, flip this technique upside-down, and throw in a tense moment that descends quickly in intensity.  Also, this is not applicable to just “golden-section climaxes”, so experiment and have fun with it!

What do you think?

Thanks for reading, and I hope you get to experiment with this simple but effective technique.

-Dan