Tension As Dimension

Tension… maybe a good thing? Absolutely! Musically speaking, tension translates to dissonance. The idea here is to explain how dissonance and consonance work… in music, and in life. See, it’s a yin/yang thing,

How good, how full, how interesting, how colorful can a piece of music be?? Well, in America today, most of those questions can be answered with a song that features a singer. You see, in today’s musical world, most of our population want/need sung lyrics to tell us what the song is about, and what emotion it is trying to sell. We’re usually too busy, too rushed, too preoccupied to simply sit and let a song wash over us, have its way with us. Unfortunately, that’s what good jazz music needs… time to feel, reflect and be moved by its musical message… not with words, but with sounds from good players with good instruments.

Exactly What Is Dissonance?

Now I love singers and vocal tunes, honest! That’s not what I want to talk about here, though. It’s dissonance, the relationship between notes in a chord and melody, for that is some of the meat and potatoes of good, deep jazz music! Briefly, a quick Google search tells us that dissonance is “a lack of harmony among musical notes.” Let me take a crack at it. Dissonance is the relationship of one note to another that is slightly grating to the ear, less pleasurable than, say, major chords and time-honored harmonies. Hmm. Still not all that hot. Okay, let me get right to the point here… I’m talking musical dissonance that makes music more fun to listen to, because the dissonances within it (when used right and tastefully) make it somehow deeper, richer, more worldly, more adventurous to listen to, not to mention that it often enhances (in a positive way) the emotion of the song itself.

A Very Brief History Of Dissonance

To my knowledge, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven all played with dissonances, albeit very carefully.  They all used the flat 9 interval sparingly, and Beethoven touched on the flat 5 occasionally. As far as I know, that was about it. Of the three, Mozart was the most experimental in this area, the most adventurous.

I used to think that tension of any kind was a bad thing, until some classes at Berklee taught us that there was color and depth in tension when used in the right way. One thing we learned is that in music, there is good and bad tension. I’ve come to believe that is true in other things as well… say, for instance, a conversation between two friends. Rather than nodding and agreeing with everything your friend is saying, an example of good tension might be, “Yes, I see your point, but what about this?” Or, “I guess so, but that doesn’t take into account x, or y, or z…” You see? Positive conversational tension.


Another example – a fine auto painter is talking about pin striping a custom car. He says, “I want a fine line along the length of the car, using a thin line of red, purple and blue.” I heard that and thought, “No possible way!” Yet when I saw it, it was beautiful! Sure, it was very different, but man, did it work! Visual tension.

Let’s try a simple musical explanation here. Numerically, the consonant intervals in the scale are the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and octave. That leaves the 2nd, the flat 5, the minor 6th and 7th as the dissonant intervals. Used right, they are a wonderful addition to melodic interpretations, and especially chord structures. I say, “used right” because Berklee taught us how to use tension and dissonance in positive ways – like adding many subtle colors to a painting, for depth and emotion.


Duke                                                                                       Herbie

Duke Ellington was a master of dissonance, so much so that Berklee had a class for seniors called “The Duke Writing” class, taught by Herb Pomeroy, who understood Duke’s penchant for dissonance backward and forward. He taught it extremely well, and the fact that I didn’t “get” much of it is no reflection on the quality of the class. Truth be told, Duke’s concept of how much tension was jazzy and acceptable was very brave. In hindsight, Duke’s usage of tension in his chords and melodies helped to define his style and unique sound. He even wrote many of his “tension notes” for a certain horn, even a certain player.

In that regard, it would have been somewhat self-defeating to use too many of the Duke tensions in a big band arrangement… one would simply end up sounding like The Duke himself! As it was, we arrangers were trying to find our own sound, our own style, and as cool as it might have been to write like Duke, it wasn’t commercially smart. You see, Duke’s sound was a bit rough and atonal to the pop-listeners’ ears. We jazzers loved it, but that’s because we’re wired in to tonal textures… we don’t need (or even want) to be spoon-fed by singers and lyrics. Paul Whiteman, the so-called “King Of Jazz” from the ’20’s and ’30’s, became hugely popular partly because his arrangements were whitewashed, devoid of most tension, the kind of tensions his listening public would probably misconstrue as wrong notes.


Paul Whiteman

On that note, if there were ever a real “King Of  Jazz,” it should have been Duke Ellington, or perhaps even Fletcher Henderson or Jimmy Lunceford. My vote would have been King Ellington, Duke Basie, Count Lunceford, etc. But I didn’t get to choose…








Henry Mancini                                                     Johnny Mandel

So you know, Henry Mancini’s arrangements of his own wonderful work had very little tension in it, and then it was mostly in his melodies. His chordal concept was very hip, and his melodies were most memorable. On the other hand, Johnny Mandel’s (the Mash theme…) music for the movie “The Sandpiper” has the most tastefully used tensions in it I’ve ever heard, and there is a ton of tension in that score… on purpose. The richness of Mandel’s arrangements is so apparent, yet pleasing to the average listener – a great example of how the proper use of tension in music can enhance a piece and its emotional impact.

Here is Mandel’s movie cue, “Art Gallery” for The Sandpiper. Listen to the richness of the horn chords, and how he moves inner voices from consonant into dissonance, then back into consonance again. To my ear, he’s a real master, as are Henry Mancini, and John Williams. Phones or ear buds recommended.


For a bad example of dissonance in big band writing, I suggest that the Nancy Wilson album, Yesterday’s Love Songs, Today’s Blues, with the Gerald Wison Big Band. Gerald not only uses some of the dissonant notes improperly, he obviously doesn’t know how to arrange a band that is featuring a singer. He should have studied Les Brown, or better, gone to Berklee.

In trying to tie tonal dissonance to a form of conversational dissonance, it has occurred that perhaps in a conversation, dissonance or tension might be perceived as a good sense of humor, and /or friendly, painless sarcasm. My example of that would be my teenage son coming into the room and saying, “Hey fool, whatcha workin’ on?” And my typical response, “I ain’t no fool, fool. You da fool…”
Verbal tension as a richer dimension of our conversation. That’s the best I can do right now.


Here is a song I wrote and recorded  back in ’81 or ’82, Sundance. It’s horn-heavy, and has some fairly subtle dissonances roaming around within it… tasteful dissonances, the way Berklee taught me. Steve Davis was the recording engineer on this cut. We talked about some of the subtle tensions in my horns before the session, as many still don’t understand the beauty of purposeful dissonance. Steve did, though, and he did a masterful job of recording the horn section just right, getting the blend and the interval buzz just the way I wanted it.


I know there are many parallels between tonal tension and relationship tension. Wish I could explain it better. Now that I think about it, it seems that pop music today is a strangely good example of this… much of pop music (if you insist on calling it that) is basically stupidly repetitious and tension-free while the lyrics are tension-filled, dissonant and contentious. Pretty much the exact opposite of good jazz. Sigh.

For you, I suggest you try a little more tension in your dimension. A touch of dissonance can give you a better appreciation for consonance. As for me, give me bunches of knowledgeable dissonance in my music and well-meaning, intelligent dissonance in our conversation, and I’ll be a happier man… if that’s even possible.

Steve Hulse

One Reply to “Tension As Dimension”

  1. Well done,and said, my friend..still replay “top of the Mart” session we three played. God bless. You and yours, Johnny\

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