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Musical Tension and Release

Aim: How do composers use tension and release to create melodies?
Summary: Students learn to identify tension and release within a piece of music.
Standards: US 1, 3, 5, 6, 7; NYC 1, 2, 3
Grade: 4th
Concept: Tempo
Artistic Process: performing, responding
Materials: Teacher Worksheet
Time Required: 10 minutes


  1. Sing or play a major scale using solfège.
  2. Discuss and practice the idea of tension and release, giving some examples outside of music, such as taking a big breath before blowing out birthday candles, a baseball pitcher winding up to throw a fastball, or pulling back on a swing set to gain momentum.
    • How does it feel to pause or create tension and then release?
    • How would these activities be different if there weren’t tension and release? (i.e., would you be able to blow out all of the candles? How fast would you be able to swing?)
  3. Introduce tension and release in music.
    • Composers use tension and release to create interesting melodies.
    • Tension is often created by using a fermata, or pause, in the music.
  4. Sing or play sets of ascending pitches in a major scale. Hold the final note of each set and have students discuss which solfège syllable contained the most tension.
    Download Teacher Worksheet (PDF)
  5. Play the first four bars of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Discuss the feeling of tension by stopping the music at that point. Then play the next four bars and discuss the release that occurs by ending on the tonic note.

Going Deeper

Listen to other examples of tension and release. Have students identify when they hear the tension and release in the music.


Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

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