Playing with Fire: Using Tension in your performance

Playing with Fire: Using Tension in your performance

“The greater the tension, the greater is the potential. Great energy springs from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.”

– CG Jung

In this article we will discuss the many ways you can play with tension in the music, to help make your vocal delivery magical!

Warning! No Physical Tension!

Before we begin, a word of caution is in order: It is important to note that as a vocalist, you must be extremely attentive to any inappropriate build up of tension in the body, especially in the throat. This kind of vocal tension is not creatively useful.

Vocal strain is viciously damaging and plagues singers everywhere. Without a good teacher trained in teaching, it can be a nasty habit nearly impossible to get rid of on your own. If you experience vocal strain, seek help from an SLS instructor.

The kind of tension you’ll read about here is far more subtle than that.

What is the world coming to???

singing with styleSo, then, what is this tension I speak of? We live in a world with significant tension: careers, relationships, world wars… Sometimes, we feel it so much it is difficult not to have it gather in our bodies. It can take a massage, a trip to the gym, or a good distraction like a movie to take the edge off.

Ouch! That hurt!

The truth is, we all feel tension in one way or another, and in varying degrees throughout the day. On one end, getting your heart broken can create so much tension it’s unbearable. On the other end, falling hoplessly in love can be the softest, sweetest kind of trip that makes us feel like we’re walking on clouds – virtually no tension at all…

We have all experienced all these degrees of tension. Everyone can relate to it.

Mesmorizing Performances

Music is a unique art form that creates layers of powerful physical vibration (sound) which recreates these subtle degrees of tension in both obvious and subtle ways in the bodies of the listener.

We experience these extremely sophisticated shifting vibrations as a kaleidoscope of changing patterns and colours. This plays a significant part of what we experience as emotion. When all this works in tandem, the audience can very easily lose themselves – ideally at your feet.

As a singer, when you understand how to turn this powerful aspect of music to your advantage and pair it with a delivery that is meaningful to you, your audience will melt in your hands.

Tips & Tricks Toolbox

Below are some of the more common ways tension is used in music:

High Notes

The most obvious. High vocal notes create a sympathetic fast frequency vibration in our bodies, and we can’t help but get caught up in it! People will pay hundreds of dollars for a live performance ticket just to hear ONE high note in a song. Such is the power of tension in high notes. This is why voice training is so important for singers – high notes can be quite precarious, yet you must nail them EVERY time.

Delaying/Anticipating Expectation of the Melody

Often called dragging or varying the melody. The same notes in Verses and choruses repeating in the same way is quite common in modern song structures. Set up the melody the first time by keeping it simple. But after that, change it up! Experiment with expectation tension by varying it a bit: wait to start singing the melody a tad off the beat by starting to sing it either just before the beat it is expected to start on, or after it. See how that plays with the audiences expectation – it will build an alluring tension.

Lyric/Melody Relationship

Most melodies are written to compliment the lyric – it often is sung with rhythmic and melodic inflections similar to how we would actually speak it! But there are many ways to accent how you sing your line to make it stand out and create tension. Perhaps you actually speak a few words off the pitch – throwing the audiences expectation. Perhaps you feel compelled to add a growl, a moan, a sigh somewhere in the words your singing. These spontaneous swoops keep you and your audiences ears fresh, hanging on the edge of their seats.

Licks & Runs

Often, these vocal embellishments can really make a singer stand out. But be careful! Too many, and you will seem flashy and dishonest – like you’re not really in the moment. Or worse – that you’re trying to show off. Done tastefully, embellishments are like genius brush strokes in the sky: they take your singing into the stratosphere through their wild, complex patterns of precisely changing pitches which your audiences experiences as shifting emotional tension.

Holding Notes

The opposite to licks & runs, but often just as powerful. By holding a note over your music where your audience doesn’t expect it, creates a powerful steady emotional state, and a very high degree of tension. Holding the 5th degree in the key of your song, creates a powerful pull in the music too. As an advanced exercise, see if you can get your band to stop time and hold a chord as you hold your note… You just might tear the place apart when you come back to the rhythm!


A flexible vocalist should be able to sing softly, gently, or breathy to a full, strong, belt, and everything in between. All of these add colourful degrees of tension. Falsetto are higher notes which drop nearly all vocal cord tension altogether, and most vocal presence is lost from the voice, making it very ineffectual in general. However, it can be powerful as an effect. After you have the audience burning in the palm of your hands, take a high note and “flip” into falsetto. In effect you will be dropping your audience out of your hands as the normal tension in the voice gives out to a disconnected tone.

Musical Structure

While this is hard to tweak without a fairly deep understanding of chord structures and key relationships, how your song is structured will play the strongest role in dictating what is most appropriate for you to do vocally. Try and become aware of the many elements within the music – the instruments, the sound relationships, solos, volume changes, and crescendos, however minor. All of these things create shifting degrees of tension that give you plenty of opportunity to experiment.

There are potentially endless ways for you to experiment as a vocalist. Try them all, and find out which ones seem to work best for you – and you’ll be on your way to building an incredibly unique vocal style.