Creating Tension & Excitement in Electronic Dance Music

Imagine this: You look out over the dance floor, the crowd is loving the tune, you’re loving the tune and everyone’s on the same level. This is bliss, and the tension & energy are building. They know it’s coming; you know it’s coming, you wait…wait…wait…then POW! The drop comes in and the room goes crazy.

That is the best feeling in the world, and it’s what I love so much about Electronic Dance Music (and DJing); the excitement, the energy and the insane goosebumps. So, what is it that causes those peaks of excitement, and keeps our interest engaged?

In a nutshell, the answer is “tension and release”, and they are fundamental to good music of any genre…

In this post you’ll learn:

  • What is meant by tension and release
  • Why they are fundamentally important to ANY piece of music
  • How they work on a micro and macro scale
  • 8 tried and tested methods of creating tension & release that you can use today

Reading Time: 20 minutes.

If you like this and want to learn more theory for EDM production, click here…

The best idea in the world can end up boring and lifeless if it doesn’t have a healthy dose of tension and release – even if it has all the other components of a killer track. Great music is like sex; a constant ebb and flow of energy that takes us on a journey (in other words, the building and releasing of tension). Don’t get me wrong, you do need to have a solid idea, sound design and production, but unless you add tension and release, the track is going to fail to ignite the dance floor.

So, what do we mean by tension and release, and how do we go about creating in our own music?

What is tension?

Tension literally means “the state of being stretched tight”. In music, it’s an emotional stretch rather than physical, but the concept is the same. Tension in music is the “perceived need for relaxation or release created by a listener’s expectations”. It means purposefully creating moments of “unrest” or “conflict” in a track; moments that require resolution. When it’s done correctly, the moment of unrest is done in such a way that you can sense the resolution coming. It’s that anticipation of resolution that keeps listeners hooked. This is why you get goosebumps before the drop in a track! You know what’s coming, and you’re looking forward to it. As composers, we are privileged to influence and craft these expectations, and we have several tools at our disposal: We can create tension using chords, melodies, rhythms, filters, pitch, FX and structural arrangement. We’ll look at each further down this post…

What is release?

Also referred to as “resolution”, it’s basically the moments in the music where tension is released; where the listener’s expectations are satisfied (following the creation of tension). Either word can be used, and an example of this might be the drop after a big build-up, or the chorus after a bridge. Tension and release can be likened to being hungry before a delicious meal: the meal itself is the same, but it tastes even better if you’re already hungry and looking forward to it!

The micro and the macro

It’s important to understand that tension and release are – if you drill down far enough – intrinsic to every part of music. Music is just a bunch of frequencies, arranged in relation to each other and over a period of time, with every note or drum beat creating micro tension and release compared to the other sounds around them. If that wasn’t the case, you’d be left with white noise (which is every frequency playing at the same amplitude simultaneously). Not exactly great music!

However, we are zooming out slightly, and will be looking at two levels of tension and release; the micro and the macro. Micro in this case means tension and release being executed at the level of beats and bars, and macro means over the course of a track, e.g. Removing a kick drum (or adding an extra snare) at the end of a bar to introduce the next with a cymbal crash would be an example of micro tension & release, whereas a build-up over 32 bars into a drop would be classed as macro.

Obviously, in some styles tension and release is more pronounced than in others; e.g. in Trance you have big, rolling building-ups, risers and white-noise sweeps. Here is an example of macro tension and release (introducing the drop):

…and in the same track, and example of micro tension (introducing the next bar):

In a genre like Deep House it might be less obvious, but it’s there nonetheless. Just listen to this track by Disclosure, paying special attention to the macro tension at 0:19, and the resolution at 0:34:

OK, so hopefully you now have an understanding of what we mean by tension and release, and why it’s so important in the writing of exciting, energy-filled music. So, how can we add into our own music?


ACTION STEPS: 8 types of tension and release (and how to use them in your music)

There are a few techniques we can use to create tension and release (or resolution), and in this guide we’ll look at 8 of the most common (and useful), along with examples. It’s important to note that usually several of these tactics can be used simultaneously for greater effect. We’re going to build upon one idea (a Trance loop I put together), so you can hear how applying each of these different techniques can really add energy and excitement to a track.

Initial Example: No tension or release. This is just the loop as it stands:


1. Dynamic Tension & Release

Dynamics refer to loudness, so “Dynamic Tension & Release” is the creation (and resolution) of tension using loudness.

Macro Example: On a macro level, an example of creating dynamic tension would be a long crescendo of snare drums increasing in volume, and the resolution would be the drop continuing to play as the loudest section of the track. You might also have the verse sections of a track slightly quieter than the chorus. This can also be achieved by having comparatively fewer elements playing in the verse sections (making the track sound quieter).

Micro Example: On a micro level, you might simply reduce the volume at the end of a bar, to create more of an impact when the new section kicks in. Also, muting certain elements for a short period is usually an easy way to reduce the volume, after which you can bring them back in at the point of resolution.

How to: You can either assign volume to the velocity of whichever instrument you are creating the tension with, or use automation to alter the level, or simply mute (or remove) certain elements for a short period.


2. Spatial Tension & Resolution

When we speak of “Spatial”, we mean creating the illusion of physical space in a track (i.e. a room or hall). This is what reverb plugins are designed for. If a sound appears to be moving further away from us, it can create tension. The release is when it comes right back “close” to us. An analogy of this would be throwing a ball high into the air and catching it: whilst the ball is moving up and away from you, the anticipation of its return causes energy and excitement, and as it falls the excitement increases (as you know you’ll need to catch it very soon).

Macro Example (The spatial effect is added to the whole mix):

Micro Example (This is what the famous ‘Pryda Snare’ is; a snare at the end of a bar with big spatial effects added momentarily):

How to: Automate a reverb plugin’s wet/dry parameter (going from dry to wet), and bring it completely back to dry at the point of resolution. You can also automate the decay value for added control. This can also be done over a buss or group to affect several instruments with the one plugin. For more advanced tactics, try integrating a ping-pong delay into the signal chain as well, to really make use of the stereo field. Note: Make sure the effects work well in mono as well as stereo.


3. Rhythmic Tension & Resolution

Cymbals and crashes are the most recognisable use of rhythm to build and release tension in EDM, and drum fills add excitement leading into a change in the track. They work because the listener is used to a particular rhythm (like the 4/4 kick drum), and they shake up the listener’s expectation that the previous rhythm would continue. It’s worth noting we don’t just mean the drums when we talk about rhythmic tension and release. You can also do this with the rhythm of chords, bass and melody, too – shake up the established patterns at key points in the song. Making them faster and denser will help add excitement.

Macro Example (This is an example of a pitch-rising snare roll leading into the drop, with a syncopated pattern at the end and a tom drum fill, a reverse cymbal, and a crash on the resolution):

Micro Example (This is an example of the kick drum, bassline and melody rhythms being altered slightly, as well as an extra snare being added):

How to: Try adding drum sounds that are different from your main loop for extra tension, and don’t go overboard: Work out which beats are adding to the tension you want to create, and remove any that aren’t important. Also, you can try automating the pitch of your rhythmic changes.


4. Chord Tension & Resolution

Tension and resolution using chord progressions is one of the most powerful techniques, as the notes are the underpinning base of a track. There are a couple of techniques we can use, in particular ‘deceptive cadence’ and ‘sustained chords’. These are deviations from the expected chord progression that has been established throughout the rest of the track. As listeners hear the music straying from what they’ve become accustomed to, they anticipate the main progression coming back, and that expectation is what creates the tension. The return of the main progression is the eventual release and satisfaction. In the example we’re using, the main chord progression is i VI VII iv (For more help with chord progressions, click here):

An example of a sustained chord would be holding the last chord before resolving to the main progression, so in this example we could use: i VI VII iv i i i i:

A deceptive cadence is when a chord other than the root follows the dominant chord. An example of this could be changing the progression to: i VI VII iv VI VII i i, before resolving by returning to the main progression:

Here they are in-situ with our example loop:

Sustained Example:

Deceptive Cadence Example:


5. Melodic Tension & Resolution

Melodies and chord progressions usually go hand-in-hand, and similar principles apply. One way to create melodic tension is through the purposeful avoiding of the tonic note in the melody, particularly in the verse. So as your chord progression approaches the tonic chord, listeners expect to also hear the tonic note. Don’t give it to them; try a different note, one that still works with the tonic chord (like the 3rd or the 5th). For information on creating melodies, click here. Another option is a slight variation towards the end of a section.

Macro Example:

Micro Example:


6. Instrumental Tension & Release

Different instruments and sounds play at different frequencies, and we can use this build energy. A classic technique for building tension in dance music is the white noise riser. Anytime listeners hear an instrument, tension is created when that instrument is dropped from the mix. That is why a lot of EDM tracks start with fewer instruments playing than at the end; it creates a global, slowly building tension that resolves itself in the last chorus or drop. This is slightly different from point 1 (dynamic), as more than just volume is at play here. You might, for instance, keep the level the same but swap an instrument for a short intro, then revert to the original for the resolution.

Macro Example:

Micro Example:


7. Tonal Tension & Resolution

Filter and EQ cut sweeps are a really common way to create tension and release, and for good reason! They alter the tone of whichever sound (or sounds) they are applied to, removing energy from the track (creating tension), so when the full frequencies are reintroduced, they sound even more powerful and satisfy the ear (resolution). The most common two types of filter used to create tension are a low-pass, and a high-pass. You can also use other modulation effects, such as phasers, flangers and pitch-bends to create tension and resolution.

Macro Example:

Micro Example:

How to: This is simply a case of automation, but experiment and combine different effects. If you’re using Ableton Live, you can assign several parameters to one macro control and automate them together. Also, automating volume envelopes (like release and attack) can be very effective!


8. Pitch Bending Tension & Resolution

We’ve already looked at creating and resolving tension using pitch with chords and melodies, but another really common (and easy) way to build tension is with pitch bending. The most obvious example of this is the synth risers in almost all genres of electronic dance music, leading into the next part of a tune, but it can be used in a more subtle way to create an almost constant state of expectation. Note: Subtlety is usually the key here!

Macro Example (A synth riser in the build up to the drop):

Micro Example (A short riser at the end of a phrase):

How to: Most EDM sample packs have some great synth risers included, but if you want to create your own, it’s simply a case of automating the pitch-wheel of your synth plugins. An advanced method of this is to use a “Shepard tone”; expertly introduced to EDM by Axwell, which is basically a sound that gives the impression of constantly getting higher. Here is an example:


Bonus: Toying with (and exceeding) expectations

Tension and resolution are usually implemented in expected ways (following tried and tested rules of structure). This is because dance music is created for the dance floor (duh), so you don’t want to confuse the people dancing and break the flow. It would be like watching an action movie, but instead of the hero winning, in the last scene he just leaves and opens a vegetable shop!? What!? It would be weird, confusing, and totally unsatisfying! However, in a movie, a twist in the plot can build even more tension, making the eventual resolution even more satisfying. If the resolution actually surprises (not confuses) and exceeds the listeners’ expectations, their satisfaction is magnified. Just listen to the drops in Skrillex records; the first time you hear them they are unexpected, but still satisfy in the ways they need to:


Conclusion:

As you can hear, we’ve gone through each of the points, utilising each method and combining them to create the desired tension and release. Job done! Tension and release are essential to any good piece of music – especially dance music – but can usually be added towards the end of writing a track (after your main idea is decided upon and most of the production is done). Just ask yourself “Have I created tension?” and “How have I resolved it?”. If you haven’t yet created tension (or haven’t sufficiently resolved it) simply start by using some of the above techniques until you’ve got some contrast, energy and excitement injected into your track.

Pro EDMtip: Import an existing, commercially released track that you love (in the same genre of the track you’re producing) into your DAW and copy the song arrangement – paying particular attention to the areas of tension and release.

Takeaways:

  • Tension & release are essential in ANY music
  • They both work on a micro level AND a macro level
  • They can be added towards the end of the production process
  • The best tension and resolution examples usually use a combination of the above techniques
If you want to learn more music theory specifically for EDM producers, click here

So what do you think? Have you got any other techniques for creating tension and resolution in your music? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

About the Author

My name's Will Darling. I've been making and playing dance music for over 20 years, and share what I've learnt on EDMtips. Get in touch on Facebook.

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