In its simplest terms, chord resolution is about bringing a chord
(the chord progression) "home", usually back to where you began the
progression. This is often referred to as a cadence.
Resolution is one function that gives songs a sense of purpose
and meaning. You can often hear when a chord sounds "unresolved",
because it holds a lot of tension (for example, a diminished chord).
Similarly, you should be able to hear when a progression sounds
resolved, because of the satisfying, relaxed feel you get from bringing
the journey to an end.
It's not just about ending a song though, as resolution can often
appear at the end of an intermediary musical phrase. In this lesson
we'll be looking at the basics of resolution, hopefully training your
sense when it can be used.
resolution basics - the tension-resolution dynamic
Resolution in a chord progression comes out of tension. Without
tension, or a feeling of being "away from home", there is no resolution
to be made.
This tension can be heard as being unresolved.
It leaves you with a
hanging feeling, as if there's no closure to a given chord sequence. Of
course, that may be the sound you want, but it's good to know your
So, let's start with some audio examples to help us get an ear for this
The most common is the relationship between the dominant (5)
a major key progression.
Hear how the V chord provides a natural air of tension before
resolving to the tonic I chord. A very common relationship, used in
nearly all genres of music.
Typically, a chord progression would lead up to that
dominant 5 chord,
preparing the journey for its return home. A signpost, if you will.
This is a good analogy to
think about (which is why I always use it!).
There are also various ways to enhance this V tension, by modifying the
chord built on that position. You can learn some of these variations in
chord lesson, but here's an example of how we can deepen the
tension of that V chord by using an augmented 7th chord. This time in a
different key (but the V - Irelationship
is the same, remember)...
I hope you're really letting this tension-resolution sound sink in.
It's a sound you'll eventually be able to hear in your head when
writing songs. You'll have the option to use it based on intituition -
when it feels right to use it.
Another natural "tension chord" commonly used prior to resolution is
the diminished chord and its variants. In the diatonic scale mapped out
in the songwriting section, the diminished chord's natural place is one
half step down from the major tonic chord. The diminished chord in this
position is known as the leading
Another name for this chord is a "leading chord", because it has a
tendency to resolve (or lead) up to the tonic.
Commonly, the bass (root) note of the V chord in the same scale will
move from its natural V position up to the vii position to enhance this
So you should now have a basic grasp of what constitutes chord
resolution. Experiment with it in your own time. The two main
examples we've looked at (V - I and vii - I) are by no means the only
forms of resolution, and others will become clear as we progress
through other lessons in the songwriting section.
Enhancing the tonic chord resolution
So we looked at some ways in which we can enhance
tension chords, but we can also enhance the resolved chord to reaffirm its
resolution and really bring the progression home. This technique is
most commonly used at the end of a song, or to mark the end of a
section of a song.
In both major and minor key progressions, we have various options as
far as modifying and extending the tonic chord to really bring the
progression home. It's like a big finale that shouts "welcome home!!".
That last one (a minor major 9th chord) has an especially distinctive
flavour. If you're familiar with James Bond films, that's what you'll
likely associate it with!
for chord resolution
as you learn...
As you work your way through the chord progression section of
this site, listen out for the chord resolution effect. I'll
most likely point them out as we find them, but it's good to get an ear
for this dynamic independently.
For example, there will be a lesson on "backdoor cadences" which will
add a new resolution path to your songwriting options. It's up to you
which path you take, but the resolution function is invaluable as it
can help bring even the most wandering chord journeys home and
naturally resolve even the most unconventional progressions.