Tension and release in songwriting uses the same mechanics as good joke telling. The way you let your story – in your song or joke – unfold is what sets the table for a satisfying hook/punchline. The difference is that songs not only have words to do this but also a melody. When lyric and melody work together, they can do a lot to lead the listener along and deliver them to the satisfying arrival of your song’s hook. Learning how to consciously create the tension and release necessary in both your lyric and melody is a part of the craft that all songwriters should actively consider. Below are a few ways to do that very thing.
Melodic and lyrical phrases are the building blocks of each of your song’s sections. Short and choppy phrasing (i.e. lots of quick words coming one after another) tends to build tension and anticipation in a song while long, open phrases with fewer words and long vowel sounds often signal a release which can allow that section – hopefully, your chorus – of your song to soar.
Drawing your listeners into your song’s story with visual imagery is a time-tested and highly effective way of doing things. Once you’ve got your listeners focused on the details of your story, you’ll be much better able to deliver them to the payoff and resolution of your song’s message in the chorus. The expression “show ‘em, don’t tell ‘em’” is key here. The example I was given years ago was instead of writing that your character is a woman who is sexy but evil, you can simply describe her as a “black heart in a green dress.”
As I mentioned above, the advantage that songwriting has over joke-telling when it comes to setting up and delivering a hook/punchline is that songs have the added advantage of the non-verbal cues that the melody provides. As a general rule, your verse melody will sit in the lower range of the scale which tends to build a tension that the higher range of the melody can use to create a release when you arrive at the chorus. Given that most listeners aren’t paying particularly close attention to your song’s lyric the first, say, dozen times they hear your song, it’s definitely in your best interest to use your melody to create the tension and release necessary to keep them engaged.
The hook of a song is that payoff moment where everything you’ve been leading up to finally pays off. The more you can do to make it count, the better. My experience has been that the simpler and more lyrically direct your hook is, the more effective it will be. I like the last line of the chorus for the placement of your song’s lyrical hook. This allows you a mini tension and release inside of the chorus that pays off at the end and then gives your listeners a bit of time to digest what they’ve just heard during the musical interlude (also called a turnaround) before the next verse or the bridge. For added emphasis, be sure that your lyrical hook lands on a melodic hook as well.
Creating tension and release in your songs is something that most of us do without being fully aware we’re doing it. That being said, I’m a big fan of songwriting decisions being conscious ones. That way when something good happens in your song, you know why it happened and you can do it again in future songs. Keeping the concept of tension and release on your radar during your writing sessions will go a long way towards creating songs people want to hear again and again.