Believe it or not, baseball and Ludwig van Beethoven have something BIG in common. What could that be, you ask? One involves bats and bases, while the other has notes and musical instruments! But scratch just a little below the surface, and they both share a common element: tension.
Let’s start with baseball. When a game begins, there’s anticipation in the air, but not really a lot of tension – people are relaxed, and the athletes are ready to play. As the game progresses, the mood in the stadium becomes increasingly excited and anxious. When exactly is the pitcher going to throw the ball? Can a runner steal 2nd base when the pitcher’s not looking? Will the trailing team come back? Can the team in the lead stay ahead? (And if you’re a Cubs fan, will the Cubbies actually win the World Series for the first time in 108 years?? But I digress.) When I watch a game on TV, I notice the tension on the fan’s faces – people are anxiously clenching their jaws, with their hands placed on their cheeks or planted on top of their heads, and their eyes firmly locked on the field. The tension spikes even higher during pivotal moments of the game, such as when all of the bases are loaded and a slugger walks up to the plate. If a game goes into extra innings, this tension can become draining. While the fans and the players get brief moments of respite during inning breaks and in particular the 7th inning stretch, the only way for this tension to be fully released is for the game to end.
Now let’s consider Ludwig van Beethoven. I regard him to be a master of controlling tension, which we can hear in his symphonies. Some begin rather peacefully (such as Nos. 4 & 7) while others jump right into the fray (like Nos. 1 & 5). Take his Fifth Symphony. The first movement (click to hear the link on YouTube) starts with a furious “fate knocking at the door” gesture; Beethoven shows that he means to build tension from the outset with this aggressive opening! He finds very creative ways to build up this tension, relax it, and then build it up even higher. By the end of the symphony’s 1st movement, you’re ready for that tension to release. Beethoven coyly does this by delivering a slow and soothing second movement, but he’s right back at building tension in the third movement. He masterfully keeps playing with tension until the very end of the fourth and final movement.
As a composer, controlling the tension is one of the most important things we can do in building an effective piece of music. If I can control when the music gets tense and when this tension is released, then I am able to tell virtually any story I want: I can start a composition as if we’re in the middle of a nighttime thunderstorm on top of a mountain, or I can make it sound like we’re walking slowly through a field of fresh spring flowers at daybreak. Managing tension and relaxation is just as important in non-narrative works too: I might make a piece progress from light, bright sounds with a slow tempo to an increasingly dark sonic world with a blazingly fast tempo. Basically, if a composer doesn’t have a firm grip on how to handle tension and relaxation, the audience will sense it. The resulting piece runs the risk of sounding as if it is aimlessly meandering, and the audience won’t feel the push–pull of the tension–relaxation dynamic.
So the next time you watch a baseball game or listen to a piece of music, see if you can feel the tension, as well as when that tension gets even higher, relaxes, and fades away completely. Now, let’s go Cubbies!