On Forward Momentum in Music

Posted By: ryan On:

Photo by 夏天

Or, The Obvious Way to Maintain Suspense.

Tension and release is a basic fundamental of composing music. Even a melody as simple as do-re-do captures the essence of tension and release. You start at home, you go somewhere, you come back.

A common problem I hear in many of my student’s work (and one I am guilty of as well), is having too much resolution and not enough tension. I don’t mean too many consonances vs. dissonances, I mean for the overall forward motion and flow of the music there are too many moments where everything feels finished.

Sometimes as often as every few bars there’s a perfect cadence, or the melody lands back on the tonic pitch. The effect is one of constant stopping, of never actually going anywhere.

Avoiding this problem is not technically very difficult. Once you know that you need to keep up the momentum, there are a few things you can do:

– Rely on half cadences over authentic cadences
– If you do use an authentic cadence, at least use a melodic tension
– Also in an authentic cadence, you can introduce motion in other voices, such as runs or fills
– Use elided cadences. This is a way to get the best of both worlds; you can have an authentic cadence to close out your theme or section but also have immediate forward motion into your next section.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin is one of the great masterpieces of 20th Century music. It’s also a long piece compared to the 2-3 minute tracks we film composers typically write. How does he keep the listener interested for over 15 minutes? Listen at 1:06, 3:33, or 3:56. He uses half cadences, elided cadences, and other methods of “not stopping” to keep the music constantly moving forward.

Mozart loves the elided cadence. Using Eine Klein Nachtmusik as an example, listen at :51 and 1:22 and notice how one section ends and another begins at the same moment.

As I said, the way to handle avoiding resolution is simple. Either don’t resolve, or if you do resolve make sure that you’re already moving forward. The only tricky part is being conscious and aware.

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