[Photo by Linus Bohman]
Among the many primary functions of film music, tension is near the top of the list. Wether it’s to generate feelings of suspense, anticipation, or even a false sense of danger, creating tension is a major part of our work as film composers.
In this article I’ll discuss one of the tools you can add to your bag of tricks for creating tension, the technique of stretching out a scale.
Tension is aroused when there is a conflict between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. In music one of the easiest ways to do this is to set up an expectation, but then delay it’s resolution.
I’m reminded of the scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit in which the villain is trying to get Roger Rabbit to come out of his hiding place. He knocks out the rhythm to the first part of “Shave and a Haircut”:
“No toon can resist the old Shave and a Haircut trick!”
Roger Rabbit can’t help himself, the tension is just UNBEARABLE! He has to finish the phrase, it’s driving him insane not to, and thus he comes out of hiding and is caught by the throat!
There are many ways to establish expectations in your listener’s ear, including using predictable melodies, setting up common cadences, creating patterns in the music, and using scales. Let’s now take a look at how we can use scales to set up expectations and delay resolution.
Many people find scales boring because they are so predictable. But that’s actually what is so great about them! We want to take advantage of that very predictability. Being a backbone of most Western music, even non-musicians have expectations about how scales resolve and what they generally sound like.
We already looked at how leaving off an expected resolution can drive you nuts with the Shave and a Haircut example. Consider this even simpler example:
If you’re like most musicians, the lack of resolution to the tonic will really get under your skin!
A scale climbing and not quite reaching home is great for demonstration, but it feels a bit rudimentary in a musical context. A more musical approach, and a very common one, is to stretch out the scale by repeating notes, rising a little bit and then backing back down and starting over. I’ll use a half-diminished scale here for some added darkness:
The tension comes from two different places here. First of all, we expect the scale to just keep climbing in an upward direction, and so when it jumps back down we are a bit surprised.
Secondly, we are never really sure when it’s going to stop, and so tension is created by the uncertainty of just how high this scale is going to go. We keep expecting it to resolve but it never does.
Examples from the Repertoire
Barber’s Adagio for Strings
An example very similar to the one we just looked at can be found in the opening to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Essentially all he is doing is climbing from A natural up to Eb, but by stretching those 5 notes into 15 he creates an incredible feeling of tension.
He stretches the scale out in two ways. First, he has a pattern of going up a third and down a second:
Then he stretches it out further by repeating each climb up a third before moving to the descent of a second:
Even after the Eb it feels like the pattern could just keep on climbing forever, but he gives us a break and rests on the C. A perfect reminder that all tension and no resolution would soon become tiresome to listen to!
Little Tom Thumb
The second movement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Little Tom Thumb, starts off with a similar technique. In this case, however, Ravel manipulates the tension in two different ways.
The first noticeable difference from the Barber is that he uses longer stretches of the scale. Instead of climbing only three notes at a time, Ravel climbs as much as 10 notes in his longest segment.
An even more significant difference is that every stretch of the scale is longer than the one before it. This is an incredibly useful technique for creating tension, as the climbing scale just keeps getting longer and longer and longer, stretching out the climb more and more and never quite reaching a feeling of resolution.
Only after the melody comes in and finally jumps down a third onto a quarter note at bar 5 do we actually feel a moment of resolved tension.
I am reminded of the opening motif from John Williams’ score to Catch Me If You Can. The opening phrase backtracks and develops just a tiny bit further each time. Every little extra development teases us into expecting more and more.
Fawkes the Phoenix
Speaking of John Williams, our last example comes from his cue Fawkes the Phoenix from the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets score. It’s a great example of how to use the climbing scale as a modulating sequence.
The example comes from about 1:22 into the track, in which he uses a climbing scale pattern to take us from A major to C major.
The basic climbing scale he uses is this:
He uses a similar pattern to the “up a third, down a second” pattern that we saw in the Adagio for Strings. It’s doubled in length to be “up a third, down a second, up a third, down a third”:
Notice how the energy increases towards the end when he stops repeating the patterns and moves into a faster climb of the scale.
Finally he adds excitement to the pattern in the violins by embellishing with neighbor and passing tones:
The result is an exhilarating climb that feels incredibly tense until the resolution on C, which in contrast to the build feels quite refreshing!
You may have terrible memories of being forced by your music teacher to practice your scales, and many of you may have resented the seemingly lack of point in the exercise.
But with some simple manipulations, we’ve just seen that the boring old scale can actually provide us with amazing potential for creating, expanding and developing tension.