Tension and Resolution
In his book, The Complete Guide to Improvisation Volume One, professor Ed Saindon explains the principal concepts and techniques used by leading improvisers past and present. The book’s topics include chord tone soloing, tension resolution, chord scale theory, harmonic practices, and more. This article covers concepts from the chapter on tension resolution and creating improvised lines that emphasize tension notes.
Tension Resolution Tendencies
An improvisational idea can be based on the use of tension notes and their resolution to the underlying harmony. Using tensions as a basis to initiate lines is an important technique with inherent flux and potential to create harmonically rich melodies. With this tension and resolution concept, the focus is on the emphasis of a conventional or an unconventional tension note, its placement in the measure, the specific beat on which it occurs, and how long it is sustained.
The improviser should be aware of the resolution tendencies of some particular tensions. Most tensions can resolve up or down to the neighboring chord tone. Some tensions, however, have a specific resolution tendency. Below is a list of those specific tension resolution tendencies.
- #11 resolves up to the fifth
- b9 resolves down to the root
- #9 resolves up to the third
- b13 resolves down to the fifth
Example 1 shows tension resolution in a II-7, V7 chord progression. Tension 11 (G) on the D-7 resolves down to the third (F), and tension 13 (E) on the G7 resolves down to the fifth (D). (See example 1, bars 1-3). A tension need not be resolved immediately. It can be resolved at any point during the measure or even in the next measure on the following chord (example 1, bars 4 to 6)
You can create interesting lines by emphasizing the tension notes on the chord changes. Beginning the measure with a tension places the focus on the color of the chord and sets the line in forward motion. Example 2 shows this approach applied to a standard chord progression. The scalar lines begin by sounding an available tension in most of the measures.
Breaking It Down
To understand this technique, it’s best to first sketch out a tension note and subsequent resolution to an adjacent chord tone for each measure on a standard progression. Example 3 shows a tension-and-release line applied to the chord changes of the first 16 measures of the well-known standard “All the Things You Are.” Example 4 shows how you can create more interesting phrases from the line you sketched over the progression by adding rhythmic syncopation. Before proceeding to the next song, note that adding additional chord tones while making sure the tension resolution remains intact will create a more flowing line based on this approach (see example 5).
To add more interest to your lines, you can combine the use of chromatic approach notes along with available tensions. The solo in example 6 on the chord progression to “All of Me” uses one nonchord tone per change that is either a chromatic approach note or a tension. The letters in parenthesis below the measures where the chords change indicate which nonchord tone pitches were used in the creation of the solo. This is a helpful way to practice improvising with tensions and their resolutions. Pick a standard and predetermine which approach notes and tensions you will use along with chord tones to weave lines through the progression.
There are multiple ways to incorporate the concept of tension resolution in your improvisation. With this method you can create lines that are very simple and melodic or quite complex and pattern oriented. It’s an important and fundamental improvisational concept that can be applied in conjunction with other approaches to improvisation.
Photo caption: Vibraphonist Ed Saindon has been a Berklee faculty member since 1976 and is an active performer and composer. He has worked with Kenny Werner, Peter Erskine, Fred Hersch, Jeff Hamilton, to name a few. He has written books for Berklee Press and Advance Music. The Complete Guide to Improvisation is available at the Berklee Bookstore and at edsaindon.com.