How can tension make a song more enjoyable?
If a song doesn’t have any tension, it sounds… boring. Like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, the song that music producer Andrew Huang called “the least cool song of all time”.
But if it has too much tension, the song starts to sound like the soundtrack to Mad Max: Fury Road.
A lot of the tension we hear in songs comes from what’s under the melody – the instruments, the arrangements, the chords. When a bunch of notes play at the same time that are all too close to each other, it feels pretty stressful. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is a perfect example of chords made up of too many notes that are too close to each other, and it’s stressful enough that (according to legend) it caused a riot the first time it was performed.
But melody is just as important as what lies beneath.
So lately, I’ve been wondering: Can a melody help the song have more tension? And can that be a good thing?
I’m Hunter Farris, and you’re listening to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” So in today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/TheCalling. This episode is made possible by my patrons, so thank you so much. If you want to become a patron, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
It’s 1:25, and I’m just jumping in the car now.
I’m supposed to get to work at 2:00, and it’s a 40 minute drive.
And I’ve already been late 3 times in a row.
So I drive away as fast as I can and get on the freeway, only to find traffic.
I’m just thinking “It’s 1:30. Why is there traffic on the freeway?!” but I just try to stay in the fastest lane, whichever one that happens to be.
But when you’re trying to stay in the fastest lane, you sometimes miss your turn… and there it is. Or rather, there it goes.
The next chance I get, I get off the freeway, only to find my GPS hasn’t figured out I missed the turn, and it’s still loading, so I have no idea which way to turn.
I cancel the route and turn on my GPS and look at that! It’s working! Not only that, but the wrong road I took is faster than the road the GPS thought I would be on! I’m going to be 2 minutes early.
Can you feel that sigh of relief?
Can you imagine how good I felt when all that stress went away?
Maybe you’ve felt something like that built-up tension. Maybe you were trying to get to class on time, or you were trying to finish a project by a deadline, or you were watching a movie that made you feel a lot of stress and then released that stress.
Or you could feel that when you’re listening to a song: There’s a lot of stress, and then that stress feels resolved, like in this track from The Lion King (“King of Pride Rock”).
And you just felt so good once you got the tension released.
That’s one reason we like “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling: It creates all sorts of mini-moments where the melody gives us enough tension to make us want to hear the next note, and that tension makes us enjoy the notes that do give us feelings of resolution.
So how can a melody alone build tension?
After all, “Wherever You Will Go” isn’t a harsh song. It’s not a chaotic song. It’s not a song full of dissonance. In fact, almost every single note of the melody harmonizes with the notes in the instrumental section. And yet it still gives us little feelings of tension and resolution that make the song so satisfying.
So how does it do it?
Like most other songs, “Wherever You Will Go” is played on a simple, 7-note scale. The melody starts out on note 5, and when we hear that, our brains expect to hear note 1 pretty soon so we can get some resolution. Then it moves to note 7, which is so close to note 1 – so close to resolution – that our brains almost beg to hear note 1. Imagine if “Wherever You Will Go” ended on note 7 like this “So late -”. We just need some kind of resolution! So when we hear note 5 and then note 7, it’s like waving a cookie in front of the Cookie Monster’s face – but not letting him eat it – then waving two cookies in front of his face. And unless we hear note 1, we’re going to feel how the Cookie Monster would feel if he didn’t get to eat those cookies.
Then the pre-chorus comes around, and the song focuses on notes 2 to make us want to hear notes 1 or 3. And it even throws in note 4, which makes us desperately want to hear note 3 just because they’re just so close to each other.
So what does that do to us?
It teases out the resolution like Jurassic Park made us wait for the moment when we get to see the T-Rex. After all, we came to Jurassic Park to see a T-Rex. And by the time we’re seeing ripples in the cup of water that mean the king of the dinos is near, we’re thinking “Just show us the T-Rex already!”
And when we hear “Wherever You Will Go”, we want resolution, so the more tension we get, the more we want that resolution.
You might remember that in the episode on “Closer” by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey, we discussed a psychologist named Jerome Kagan, who said that once suggested that “resolution of uncertainty… [is a] primary [motivation]”.
And it’s not just that we want resolution. The tension makes us want resolution more.
If you’ve watched The Big Bang Theory, you might remember a scene where Amy Farrah-Fowler tries to help Sheldon Cooper overcome his obsessive need for closure. At one point, she plays “O’er the land of the free and the home of the -”, then stops, gets up from the piano, and moves on.
Now if she had just finished the song there, Sheldon would be just satisfied. But since Amy left the song on a “cliffhanger” note (note 2, in this case), the desire for resolution spiked and the moment she left, he sat down to the piano to finish the song.
Now, not all of us have a need for closure as strong as Sheldon’s, but when you heard Amy leave the song unfinished, could you feel just a little bit more need for resolution? Because I know I could.
As human beings, we want resolution.
But when we get as much tension as we get in “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling, we crave resolution.
Fortunately, this song wastes no time in satisfying our need for resolution.
Almost every time we hear note 5 and note 7, we get to hear note 1 immediately after it. We get exactly the note we want to hear so badly, the tension is resolved, and the Cookie Monster got his cookie.
But that resolution is so much more enjoyable because of the tension.
If Sheldon had got to hear the end of the song without having so much tension, he wouldn’t have enjoyed the end nearly as much as he did. How much did he enjoy it? Well, you can hear his joy in the last note he sings: “And the home of the bra-aaaaave!”
Think of the last inspirational movie you watched. Now how satisfying would the resolution be without the struggle and without the tension? Imagine if the plot of Remember the Titans went “There once was a team that wanted to win a football game. So they… did.”
If I’d just shown up to work and been 2 minutes early, it would have been just another day at work. But since I was stressed about being late and then found out that I wasn’t late, I celebrated at getting to be 2 minutes early.
And this is something all of us experience, according to research done by Arie Kruglanski, one of the founding psychologists in the field of the need for closure. The New Yorker summed up some of Kruglanski’s findings when they wrote that “when [we’re] faced with heightened ambiguity and a lack of clear-cut answers, we need to know – and as quickly as possible”. Music is just one area where tension makes us appreciate resolution so much more. You could say that tension gives meaning to the resolution.
Maybe that’s one reason why Meredith Laing wrote (in an article in Making Music Magazine) that “Music is all about creation and release of tension”.
And “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling is a great example of the “creation and release of tension”, structured in a way that makes us enjoy the song more.
It gives us a microburst of stress, then a microburst of resolution. And it gives us that therapeutic feeling of release every few seconds. Just the movement from 5, to 7, to 1 (the movement from one cookie, to 2 cookies, to eating cookies) happens more than 10 times before the first minute is over.
Those mini-moments of tension and resolution make us crave the release and then appreciate the release. Even if we know what the melody is about to do, we still want to actually hear it for ourselves so we can experience the closure we want so badly.
And when a melody gives us a desire for closure and then fills that desire this well, we’ll follow that melody wherever it will go.
Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com/TheCalling where you can find the full transcript, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you next Friday. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
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