Music, much like life, is fundamentally a swinging pendulum between tension and release. Fortunately, with music, this is easy to represent objectively and to utilize in your music composition.
Taking a look at the C major scale, you can see that each note has a relative degree of stability or instability. We also call this consonance and dissonance. Traditionally, the rules of counterpoint dictate that the unison, third, fifth, sixth, and octave are consonances. The unison, fifth, and octave are perfect consonances while the sixth and third are imperfect consonances. The second, fourth, diminished fifth, tritone, and seventh are called dissonances.
It’s important to note that dissonance doesn’t mean being wrong or bad. Dissonance simply indicates an increase in musical tension.
So a diagram of the C major scale, showing the relative degree of stability to instability, would look like this:
How can you use this as a composer?
Think of where you want to take the listener. A melody is like a roller coaster. It goes up, it goes down. It builds tension and releases tension. The final release doesn’t come until the ride is over and you are still again. Your job as a melody writer is to take your listener on a journey, weaving through tension and release just like that roller coaster ride.
A very practical way to illustrate this is to look at the end of melodic phrases. Perhaps your entire melody has 8 melodic phrases. It would make sense to increase tension in the first few phrases by ending on relatively unstable tones. Then you can resolve it, but not completely, on the fourth phrase. Increase the tension again, and then release it completely on the last phrase by ending on the first or fifth scale degree.
This is also a great strategy for improvisation. If you’ve got 32 bars to solo, don’t resolve until the very end. Or, depending on the section that follows, you may want to increase the tension during the entire solo so that the following section can provide the release.
We just looked at how to use tension and release on an entire melody by choosing stable and unstable tones for the endings of melodic phrases. You can also look at the individual melodic phrases and determine the motion between tension and release you would like the listener to feel within each phrase. You can zoom in and out as far as you need to help you create the desired effect.
Obviously, tension and release are created by a combination of factors, like rhythm, harmony, motion, and so on. I’ve only discussed one aspect of tension and release in melody so far. Here’s the bottom line, whenever you need to make a melodic choice, ask yourself, “What level of stability or instability am I trying to create?” Then make the appropriate choice.