Tension & resolution

Become a better songwriter, composer and improviser by learning about the principals of tension & resolution.


 
In tonal music, tension and resolution refers to the gravitational pull of non-chord tones or extended chord tones (dissonance) to the consonant chord tones of the key center.
 
The key center is established by the tonic chord. We know that the tonic chord of any key is comprised of the root, third, and fifth scale degrees of the given key. Let’s use the key of C as an example.
 
Ex. 1
 
In the key of C major, the notes C, E and G make up the tonic chord, C major:
 

 
Ex. 2
 
In the key of C minor, the notes C, E♭ and G make up the tonic chord, C minor:
 

 
The key center is also defined by the dominant to tonic relationship of a given key. In the key of C major, this would be the relationship between the dominant, G7, and its resolution to the tonic, C major.
 
Parallel to this concept, the key of C minor’s key center is also created by the relationship between the dominant, G7, and its resolution to the tonic, C minor.
 
Extension
 
Extended chords are triads (chords built from thirds) with notes added or extended beyond the seventh scale degree. Ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords are extended chords. The thirteenth is the farthest extension diatonically possible, because a thirteenth chord is comprised of all seven possible tonal degrees.
 
This being said, most extended chords do not typically use all of the chord members. Later on in this chapter (ex 1.21), you will see the following scenarios diagramed:
 
  • When it is not altered, the fifth is usually omitted
  • In an eleventh chord, the ninth is usually omitted
  • In a thirteenth chord, the eleventh is usually omitted
 
These scale degrees will not be omitted if they are altered to create a special texture within the passage of music.
 
Before diving into the diagrams of each extended chord, let’s take a look at the C major scale and observe the positions of each extended note:
 
Ex. 3
 

With this foundation in mind, let’s take a look at the various ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords that most commonly appear in Western music.
 
Ninth chords
 
Ex. 4
 
Cma9
 

 
Ex. 5
 
C9
 

 
Ex. 6
 
Cmi9
 

 
Ex. 7
 
C7(♭9)
 

 
Eleventh chords
 
Ex. 8
 
Cma7(#11)
 

 
Ex. 9
 
C7(#11)
 

 
Ex. 10
 
Cma9(#11)
 

 
Ex. 11
 
C9(#11)
 

 
Thirteenth chords
 
Ex. 12
 
Cma13
 

 
 
 
(thirteenth chords, continued)
 
Ex. 13
 
Cmi13
 

 
Ex. 14
 
C13
 


Tension/resolution
 
By now you should understand the difference between consonance and dissonance, which are defined by the notion of tension and resolution. Each tension tone possesses a tendency of resolution. This occurs in two major settings: within the same chord and between two chords, usually a dominant to tonic progression.
 
In both scenarios, you will notice the following resolutions:
 
  • The fifth scale degree resolves to the tonic note.
  • The seventh scale degree resolves to the tonic note.
  • The second (ninth) scale degree resolves to the tonic note.
  • The fourth scale degree (eleventh) resolves to the third scale degree.
  • The sixth scale degree (thirteenth) resolves to the fifth scale degree.
 
First, let’s take a look at tension/resolution within the same chord. We will continue to use C major and minor as our key center.
 
 
Resolution of non-chord tones within the same chord
 
Ex. 15
 
The second scale degree tends to resolve to the tonic note.
 
C major:


 

C minor:
 

 
 
Ex. 16
 
The fourth scale degree tends to resolve to the third scale degree.
 
C major:
 

 
C minor:
 

 
 
 
Ex. 17
 
The sixth scale degree tends to resolve to the fifth scale degree.
 
C major:

 
 
 
 
 
C minor:
 

 
Ex. 18
 
The seventh scale degree, also known as the “leading tone,” has a gravitational pull towards and tends to resolve to the tonic note.
 
C major:
 

 
C minor:
 

 
 
 
Resolution of extended chord tones within the same chord
 
Ex. 19
 
The ninth scale degree tends to resolve to the tonic note.
 
C major:
 

 
C minor:
 

 
 
Ex . 20
 
The eleventh scale degree tends to resolve to the third scale degree.
 
C major:
 

 
C minor:
 

 
Ex. 21
 
The thirteenth scale degree tends to resolve to the fifth scale degree.
 
C major:
 
 
 
C minor:
 

 
Here are two additional extended chord tones and their resolution to chord tones in the key of C major:
 
 
Ex. 22
 
The flatted ninth scale degree tends to resolve to the tonic note.
 

 
 
 
Ex. 23
 
The augmented eleventh scale degree tends to resolve to the fifth scale degree.
 

 
 
By far, the most common example of tension and resolution within the same chord is found within the dominant chord, especially in its suspended fourth composition:
 
Ex. 24
(V7sus4 – I)
 

 
Tension/resolution from one extended chord to another chord
 
The majority of the non-chord tones and extended chord tones are found in the dominant chord. Remembering the tendencies of each extended tone from earlier in this chapter, take a moment to observe the following tensions and resolutions in a dominant to tonic progression.
 
Ex. 25
(V7 – I)

 
Ex. 26
(V9 – I)
 


 
Ex. 27
(V11 – I)


 
Ex. 28
(V13 – I)
 

Tension substitution
Tension itself as a tension substitution
 
Now that we understand the basic tension/resolution tendencies within the same chord and within the dominant to tonic relationship, it is time to apply this foundation to the concept of tension substitution within a multiple-chord progression.
 
While certain styles of music contain many examples of tension and resolution within the same chord, one of the staple spices of jazz music is the practice of tension and resolution within unique and pattern-based chord progressions. As you are learning about in Harmony & Theory 4, one of the most common chord progressions in the jazz idiom is the I – vi7 – ii7 – V7 progression.
 
Take a look at example 1.46. Here you will find this very progression in C major, which contains the following seventh chords in this progression: Cma7 – Ami7 – Dmi7 – G7. While these chords are the foundation for the I – vi7 – ii7 – V7 harmonic movement, there are several ways to manipulate the color of the chords in a practice known as tension substitution.
 
Staying in the key of C major, here a few examples of the extensions each chord can be comprised of:
 
  • The I chord can be:
    • Cma7, Cma9, Cma9(#11), Cma13
 
  • The vi chord can be:
    • Ami7, Ami6, Ami7(b5), Ami9, Ami11, Ami13
 
  • The ii chord can be:
    • Dmi7, Dmi6, Dmi7(b5), Dmi9, Dmi11, Dmi13
 
  • The V chord can be:
    • G7, G9, G11, G13, G7(b9), G7(b5)
 
When these chords contain any type of extension, that note may be used in the melody of your improvisation.
 
Sing through the following exercise, and take note of the types of extensions each chord contain. This will serve as an introduction to tension substitution, therefore the melodies will remain primarily diatonic. Focus on creating a clear and resonate tone, especially on the tied eighth notes, which often serve as the suspended tension.
 
Take a moment to fill out the numbers of each note. Once you feel comfortable with original key of C major, you may repeat this exercise chromatically until the entire voice range has been covered.
 
Ex. 29
 

 
Non-chord tone to chord tone resolution exercises
 
To deeper implement the practice of resolving non-chord tones to chord tones, it is important to further establish the key center by locking into the tonic chord scale.
 
For examples 1.31 and 1.32, sing the tonic’s major scale, and then follow the pattern of resolving the 6th, 4th, and 2nd scale degrees to their appropriate chord tones.
 
Within each four-bar exercise, very chord will be a variation of the tonic chord.
 
Continue the circle of fourths modulation pattern until all 12 keys are covered.
 
Ex. 30
 
 
 
 
Perform exercise 32 in the same exact fashion as exercise 31; only this time, each four bar exercise will be in a minor key.
 
Ex. 31

 
 


Extended-chord tone to chord tone resolution exercises
 
The next two exercises will be comprised of five-bar patterns demonstrating the practice of tension and resolution with extended chord tones.
 
Instead of singing a scale, we will perform arpeggios of the tonic seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords; and then resolve the extended chord tone accordingly.
 
Note: Watch out for the syncopated rhythms, and tune into the upper register of your voice for these exercises. The nature of extended chord tones falls in the upper register, well above the tonic note. When you perform these higher notes, you may want to use your head voice. Be sure to feel the resonant vibrations in your forehead, and always perform these exercises with a pure, glistening tone.
 
This time, continue the circle of fifths modulation pattern until all 12 keys are covered.
 
Ex. 32
 
    
Perform exercise 33 in the same exact fashion as exercise 31; only this time, each five bar exercise will be in a minor key.

Ex. 33

In closing, tension and resolution is a powerful tool for you to incorporate into your songwriting, composing and improvisation. Understanding how dissonance and consonance work within a piece of music is a valuable asset to your musicianship. Remember, you are always a half step away from salvation! -AV

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