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Tensions and their Resolutions in Music

by - Dr. T V Sairam

In the words of Igor Stravinsky, the great orchestral giant, music is a series of tension which try to find their own way in reaching certain state of resolution or relaxation.

This statement is true in so far all forms of music are concerned. Any keen observer of music will vouch that there is an underlying pattern in all music, which tends to form a cycle of in-built tensions and resolutions – continuously emanating.

As an illustration lets take the first line in the popular bhajan popularized by the Father of Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare’. The starting words Hare Rama hare Rama which can be perceived as causing tension, gets resolved with the following words, Rama Rama Hare Hare’. In other words, if we interpret the starting phrase as the Question, obviously the following phrase becomes and answers. Thus there is an in-built dialogue in all music, which goes on and on till the music ends in a harmonious manner (lets call it as a compromise).

All forms of music– be it folk or classical, ethnic or sophisticated – reveal such characteristics, which can be experienced by any keen listener. Sometimes this ‘dialogue' in music may even become a ‘quarrel’ between voices and tones of several instruments. The Hindustani jugalbandhis incorporate such ‘quarrel’ elements which end up of course amicably and with a great joy in the listener’s mind!

This question-answer pattern or the tension-resolution pattern is universal to all musical forms around the globe. Even breathing routine we undergo involve this tension-resolution pattern. As we take a deep breath, we draw in oxygen, which causes tension within the body. Once we breathe out, this tension is gone and we are relieved. Some recent researchers have noted that the tension built and the resultant resolution that follows in music gets translated into an electrical code of pulse in the brains.

According to Sigmund Freud, we are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast. And we have to remember that it is the music that caters to us a never-ending contrasts – contrasts between sound and silence, note and a pause, resonance and rhythms, rhythms and rhythms, syllables and syllables, tones and tones and whatnot

It is interesting to note that the nature’s rhythm too exhibit similar pattern – more particularly in terms of timings (tala), intensity (or amplitude), synchronicity, contrast in frequency (e.g., vadi, anuvadi and samvadi types of swaras), etc.

Dr Gordon Shaw, a neurologist and his associates have discovered that specific firing pattern in brain cells resemble the musical work of baroque, New Age and Eastern music.

It is interesting to note here that, very much like our muscles, which respond to repetition of its tension and relaxation in aerobic exercises, mind also responds to the repetition of tension and resolution caused by the musical piece. The end result is obviously the greater flexibility of mind to cope up with the tensions and traumas caused by one's surroundings.

Dr T V Sairam, A serving bureaucrat and a writer, is from F/48B, Hari Nagar New Delhi 110064. For any doubts you can contact him at - tvsairam @ gmail. com