What Musical Tension Teaches Us about Storytelling

Like many other creatives during the age of physical distancing and semi-quarantine, I’ve been dabbling in a smattering of creative hobbies.  Among these is music – I have a couple of guitars, but it had been a while since picking up one.  Along the way, I also grabbed a book from Kindle Unlimited on music theory (Music Theory: From Absolute Beginner to Expert by Nicolas Carter) .  Lo and behold, in between all of the stuff about the chromatic scale, extended cords, and diatonic modes was an unexpected connection to storytelling:

…in general we say that a melody consists of tension and release.  That means that a good melody moves away from the harmonic center of the music, building tension, and then moves back in some interesting way, releasing that tension.

This is not the primary focus of that book, but this point really struck me.  I’ve been saying for some time that tension is a key to storytelling (and I’m not alone in that). It also got me thinking about great pieces of music – what are some good examples of this kind of tension, and how might we apply that to other forms of storytelling?

A Classic Example: Erlkönig

Full disclosure, this is probably my favorite piece of classical music.  But I think this is a great example of sustained tension in music – the piano triplet it’s most well-known for is tense and relentless.  It doesn’t hurt that this piece itself tells a story – a child and his father on horseback, pursued by the Earl King that only the child can see.  It’s also interesting if you listen to this on a video with subtitles (this version has the translation in the video description), because you can see tonal differences in the music depending on who is speaking.  The child’s lines are accompanied with a much darker sound that is the father’s, who believes his son is imagining what he’s seeing.  This highlights how tension can be subjective – conflict is made more interesting by contrast, especially when fueled by characters with different perspectives.

Also, you should just listen to it because it’s flipping great.

A Modern(ish) Example: 3 Doors Down

I have a soft spot for 3 Doors Down.  They were the first band I really got into after the obligatory 90’s kid boy band phase (Backstreet Boys > NSYNC, for those that care).  I still keep coming back to them, because while their songs are not in general difficult to sing or play, they are well-written.  This song is an example of that – resolution in music is, in the most simplistic of terms, about returning to the home note.  This song sets up a minor feel, with both the guitar and the violin, and lead singer Brad Arnold avoids returning to the home note, mostly at all, until the ending of the intro/first verse when he lands on the song’s main thesis: “All I think about is you.”

This points, also to the cyclical nature of conflict and resolution in music, something that the Carter book explicitly mentions – moving away from the harmonic center, and then back to it again.  And in this song, that’s done precisely at the “thesis line,” if I could be so snobbish. Which is to say this: resolution of tension must connect with the story’s theme.

I have a feeling that I’ve only scratched the surface here.  But I find it fascinating how much different art forms have to teach each other.  Hopefully you do, too!

Logan Judy (that’s me) is a science fiction, fantasy, and dystopia author.  His newest novel, The Prison in the Sky, is slated for release in September 2020.  You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon, and you can sign up for his newsletter and receive a free ebook.

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