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Tom Quayle - Creating Tension Part 1: Using Sub-Divisions

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 54 **

Hi there, guys and welcome back to my column for this issue. As we’ve seen before many times, especially in the Western Tradition, music is built around the idea of tension and release. If music has no sense of this tension/release juxtaposition, it feels bland and boring to us. We tend to think of the tension within music as coming from a harmonic framework primarily where chords create dissonance or a sense of unresolved strain before resolving to a home chord or temporary harmonic respite. This needn’t always be the case, however, and tension can just as often be rhythmic in nature as well as harmonic. Great improvisers create both kinds of tension within their solos and today I want to introduce you to a basic method that you can use to start to develop intentional rhythmic tension in your playing. Without this, your solos can become dull and uninteresting for your audience.

With harmonic tension, we are juxtaposing dissonance and consonance against one another. To achieve a similar effect with rhythm, we will be juxtaposing even and odd sub-divisions against one another. There are many rhythmic devices we can use to create tension, but we’ll be sticking with this one for today’s lesson.

Even sub-divisions are those based around even numbers, so ¼ notes, 1/8th notes, 1/16th notes and our odd sub-divisions are based on odd numbers, ¼ note triplets, 1/8th note triplets and 1/16th notes triplets. If you juxtapose these against one another, you get tension because the feel of these two groups is very different in relation to the groove you are playing over.

Your first and most basic goal is to be able to accurately play each of these subdivisions and have the skill to switch seamlessly between them. Practice playing each of them for a bar or longer and switching on beat one of the next bar until you can switch subconsciously between them. Once you are at this point (a pretty basic requirement for improvising), you can start to create tension in your solos.

Let’s think like a drummer for a minute, since they have no harmonic framework to derive their music from, rather only a rhythmic one. Drummers create tension in many ways, but they tend to create tension in the same places that a harmonic instrument does – in bar four or eight or the last two bars of a 12-bar blues for example. One of the ways in which they do this is to play drum fills and, since we’ve all heard so many drummers in our musical careers, be that live, on record or just jamming in your garage, we have an implicit sense of where drum fills should go in the larger framework of music.

Imagine we have a drummer playing a simple funk groove at 120bpm and they play a fill every four bars. Without any sense of harmony at all, we will get a natural tension and resolution occurring where tension is created in bar four and resolves in bar one again. We can mirror this effect by utilising our odd sub-divisions in bar four. Our harmonic material is not going to change (in the video example, I use F# Dorian throughout) but by using only odd subdivisions in the fourth bar, we juxtapose them against our even sub-divisions from bars 1-3 and create natural tension. Have a listen to my example improvisation in the video to hear this effect in action. You can scale this up or down to suit your needs, playing odd sub-divisions every 2 bars or 8 bars, for example, depending on your tempo and harmonic pace.

Certainly, this method won’t create as much tension as a harmonic device that creates a lot of dissonance, but you can get very sophisticated with this technique and start to really throw the listener off with interesting rhythmic devices, never going near a harmonic substitution or weird scale choice to aid you. Have a listen to Wayne Krantz for a masterclass in creating rhythmic tension and release.

I hope you enjoy this lesson – we’ll be expanding this over the coming issues to widen your improvisation skills rhythmically.

Have fun and see you in the next issue!

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