Tension and Resolution

One of the most important larger scale features of music is the alternation of periods of tension and resolution. Conventionally the terms tension and resolution (or release) are used to describe the movement of a piece of music away from the tonic chord of a key into more complex harmonic territory, and then back again. The effect of building up tension and them releasing it is a feature of most time-based arts, and need not refer to anything related to harmony. In the visual realm, examples of motion from tension to release can be found in a number of contexts. Examples include plays between confusion and recognition, between asymmetry and symmetry, and between visual chaos and visual order.

These visual analogues can be used to represent this dynamic, where the actual details of the harmonic mechanism is not particularly relevant to the overall experience. On the other hand, where there are ways of successfully representing the harmonic consonance and dissonance in a work visually, the sense of tension and resolution may arise automatically. The visual analogues can also be used to intensify or highlight this experience where the harmonic translation is itself less evocative.

States of harmonic dissonance have a sense of ambiguity to them. Another term used to express the tension is suspension. A dissonant combination of tones presents multiple competing possible tonal centers, holding them in suspension until one or more tones changes to point to a specific tonal center, resolving the harmonic situation. This suspension of possibilities in a state of ambiguity is a deeply nested feature of perception itself.