Music Theory: Tension and Release (Music Producer Tips)

Within jazz music theory, creating and releasing tension is a concept that, when applied, will help you create interesting chord progressions. This is a useful concept to understand if you produce R&B or Hip Hop music. Creating tension can be done in a couple of ways that we will go over in this article. However, before we go over these techniques for creating tension, lets define tension.


Tension is the build up in anticipation that the listener feels when listening to a piece of music. This causes the listener to feel some kind of anticipation. Once the tension has been created, it must the be released. This resolution of tension causes the listener a feeling of satisfaction.

Ways To Create Tension

There are quite a few ways to create tension in your tracks. The two main techniques for creating tension that we will go over are key changes and creating dissonance. These two techniques are used frequently in Jazz composition and work well when applied to R&B and Hip Hop production. Let’s go further in depth on these techniques.

Key Changes

Often times when producers attempt to create a beat from scratch or compose a sample they tend to choose one key and build chord progressions using only chords/notes within that key. While this approach to creating beats can be both simple and effective, it can also be limiting. Instead, adding key changes can open up more interesting possible chord progressions. Changing key creates tension by causing the listener to anticipate a return to the original key or tonal center. To gracefully execute a key change it is useful to reference the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths is a useful music theory tool you can use to visualise keys. When choosing the next chord of your progression you should look at the neighbouring keys to your original key on the circle of fifths and choose a chord that is in one of those two neighbouring keys.

The circle of fifths is displayed. at the top of the circle is the key of C major followed by G, D, A, E, B, G flat/F sharp, D flat/C#, A flat, E flat, B flat, and F major keys. The circle also includes the relative minor keys of these major keys.

Using a neighbouring key will make your key changes sound more natural and avoid sounding jarring to the listener. From there you may choose to add a few more chords from the new key before resolving the tension by returning to the original key. If your original key is a minor key you can get a similar effect without switching key through switching from the natural minor version of that key to the harmonic minor version by utilising the raised seventh in a chord.


Trying to avoid dissonance is a common habit of newer producers/musicians because it gives you an uneasy feeling. However this uneasy feeling is actually tension being created which causes the listener to anticipate a resolution. When used in passing it can make your chord progression more interesting and evoke more emotion from the listener as they feel more satisfaction from the resolution when you return to consonance. Within R&B, the diminished 7th chord is frequently used for this purpose. The diminished 7th chord creates a dissonant sound that creates tension. Using the diminished 7th chord as a passing chord is a great way to make the destination chord sound more impactful. This is because the previous diminished chord causes the listener to anticipate the final destination chord.