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A rock won’t fly unless you pull the sling-shot back. You need tension to launch it.
In the same way, using tensions in your chords can make your songs much more interesting and colorful, for both you and your listener. So, here’s a quick primer on how to make use of tension in your chord progressions.
And if you’d like to take this a few steps further, you’ve got to check out Soundfly’s double header of beginner theory courses, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony.
What Does “Tension” Mean?
Tension is exactly what you think it is. It’s when you hear a chord that immediately makes you feel tense, unsettled, and not “at home.” You may sense a longing for resolution.
Musically speaking, tension is caused by an extra note in a chord that’s not naturally part of that chord or scale sequence. And there are two basic ways you can figure out if a tension note will work in a chord:
- Add any note in the diatonic scale (five whole steps + two half steps) from that key and see what it sounds like,
- Add a note from a different scale than the chord you’re playing.
Why you’d want to use tension is up to you, but there are hundreds of ways to turn this tool into a strength when it comes to your songwriting practice.
Let’s say for example, you’re writing a song about missing an ex-lover. Lyrics that reference feeling “far away” or “unstable” might do well to be paired with tense chords that give an unnatural sentiment; whereas when the lyrics resolve the narrative of getting back together, you can accompany that resolution with more consonant chords in which the tonic is clearly articulated.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “‘Drivers License:’ How Olivia Rodrigo Uses Much More Than Lyrics to Tell Her Story.”
Chords That Use Tensions
To show you some examples of chords that use tensions, let’s look at the key of G major. If you have a G major chord (G – B – D), you can add any other note from the diatonic scale to add tension. The other notes in the diatonic scale of G major are A, C, E, and F#.
Test it for yourself. Play a G Major, then add in A, C, E, or F#, and notice how it adds new flavors and colors. It sounds like a more complex chord that needs to go somewhere, one that feels moving already.
You can also add tension by playing another scale while you play the G major chord. So let’s say you play a riff or solo in the key of C major underneath the G major chord. The notes in a C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Playing a combination of these notes underneath a G major chord will sound odd, but it can work to create a feeling of being outside a musical comfort zone.
You’ll feel the tension for sure.
Here’s a short tutorial with NYU professor Ethan Hein, courtesy of Soundfly’s Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, explaining the art of using leading tones to create a tension leading towards your tonic.
How to Use Chord Tensions in a Song
As mentioned above, the most common way to use chords tensions is along with the idea of “tension and release.” And there are a few ways to do so.
1. In-between chords.
Tensions work really well in the context of in-between or passing chords. When you’re going from one chord to the next in your progression, you can put a tension chord in between.
Here’s an example: Emaj – Bdim – F#m – Bmaj
That B diminished chord is an in-between chord. It sounds like a walkup from the E major to the F# minor. It causes just a small amount of tension, by way of motion, then resolves with the F# minor, which is the next natural chord you’d expect in the context of this progression.
2. To build excitement for the payoff.
Tension and release works really well if the release is situated in the chorus. The pre-chorus is a great place where you can create tension and build.
Let’s say you have a verse with the chord progression: C#m – Amaj – Bmaj
In the pre-chorus, you can play F# minor to a B7 before resolving to E major at the beginning of the chorus. If you stayed on that B7, the song would still sound like it needs to resolve. But playing it right before the Emaj gives you that tension and then a nice payoff in the release.
3. To surprise the listener.
A fun way to use chord tensions is to throw in a surprise chord at the end of a line. It usually works best at the end of a chorus.
Let’s continue on with the above example. Your chorus goes: Emaj – Esus – Emaj – B – A – Am – E
See that A minor? It catches you off guard. An A minor is not a natural chord in the key of E major, but by including it, you surprise the listener right before going back to the home chord.
And that is how you use tensions in your chords and chord progressions. You’re essentially setting up expectations, temporarily defying them, and then eventually making good on those expectations to enhance the listener’s journey.
Don’t stop here!
Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, and more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses. Subscribe for access to all, including The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony, Orchestration for Strings, and our exciting new course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.