Tension and Resolution

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Toward the end of December, about half of Americans make a pledge to do or cease doing something significant in the coming year. Nearly all of these resolutions will fail (88% by some estimates). The backsliding usually begins in February, when the optimism of a shiny new calendar meets the realities of everyday life. By springtime, most vows suffer an unceremonious demise, perishing from neglect or suffocating under the weight of too many excuses. Some will be resurrected when December rolls around again, only to experience the same inglorious fate.

The reasons for this are multiple. Most resolutions consist of motivation without mechanism. We are energized by our declarations to quit smoking, eat less, exercise more, watch less television, wake up earlier, save more money. But these are habits, and habits are hard to break. Positive affirmations only get us so far; continuous work must be done. There is also the discouragement factor, which sets in when weight loss doesn’t come fast enough, or when, in a moment of weakness, a drag is taken from a forbidden cylinder. To remove guilt, it is always easier to give up the goal than to re-dedicate and overcome. Plus, most of us have unrealistic views of what a resolution is. It is not a magical potion that creates instant positive change. Because resolutions tend to be behavior-oriented, an intricate network of physical and psychological adjustments must be devised in order for a single goal to be achieved. Such adjustments involve trial and error, forward and backward steps, stagnation and baby strides, and other inevitabilities that muddy the elegance of a clear and noble resolution.

There is no shortage of suggestions as to how to keep a New Year’s resolution. Set small goals, focus on the present, trust the process, find an “accountability buddy,” etc. But the high rate of failure suggests that either these hints are not very helpful or, more likely, that they are almost as hard to maintain as the resolutions themselves. The sobering truth is this: preserving self-promises requires struggle, and it is human nature to avoid struggle.

In an odd way, the difficulty of keeping New Year’s resolutions helps explain our attraction to tonal music (i.e., music in which tones and chords are arranged in relation to a tonic). In tonal music of all sorts—from folk tunes and pop songs to concertos and symphonies—the interplay between tension and resolution is the main musical motor. These patterns are shaped by a number of musical features, like dynamics, melody and harmony, as well as the cultural training of the listener, who, if reared on Western music, intuitively perceives harmonic build-up, melodic anticipation, violation or fulfillment of expectations, and a sense of relaxation that comes at the end of a piece. Indeed, one need not be an expert analyzer of musical form to detect these pushes and pulls. Almost from birth, our ears are attuned to and develop an affinity for this dramatic movement.

The appeal of musical tension and resolution reveals much about human psychology. In contrast to our day-to-day experiences, frictions and happy outcomes in music occur quickly, cleanly and predictably. Depending on the type and length of a piece, the back-and-forth will happen more or less frequently and the drama will be brief or drawn out. But, most of the time, the music concludes on the tonic, bringing the listener to a sense of consolation, satisfaction and accomplishment.

Perhaps most importantly, the conclusion is reached with no real effort. The listener passively travels through a sonically simulated struggle and happily accepts the reward. Tensions are mopped up for us and relief arrives as expected. What transpires musically is what we wish would transpire when we make New Year’s declarations: instant and painless success.

But there is another, more valuable, lesson to draw from musical tension and release. In contrast to our annual vows, tonal music does not begin with a statement of resolution. It works in the opposite direction. The resolution is arrived at only after a series of strides and setbacks, hits and misses, ups and downs. These are the preconditions for a satisfying ending. Although the process is shortened and the anguish removed, musical tension and relaxation is a metaphor for the rocky road to achievement. As Rabbi Ben Hei Hei remarked in Pirkei Avot 5:25: “According to the labor is the reward” (an ancient formulation of the weight room cliché, “No pain, no gain”).

It might be instructive to rethink our New Year’s resolutions more musically. Instead of putting the outcome first—and being disappointed when it is not swiftly realized—perhaps we should set a “tonal” process in motion, in which we acknowledge likely and recurring obstacles (tension), predict small and multiple triumphs (release), and persevere toward a final resolution (the tonic).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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