The concept of tension and release is fundamental to any style of music. Creating moments of musical conflict followed by resolution, either through compositional or performance devices, can be satisfying and interesting both for the listener and the performer. Incorporating syncopated rhythms, dynamic changes, busier subdivisions, or dissonant harmonies are some of the many ways to create musical tension. In this lesson, we’ll explore methods to create tension and release by using five-note phrases.

Highlighting beat 1 of every measure can make the music sound predictable. To create interesting variations, you can play phrases that take more than one measure to complete or that don’t begin or end on the first beat.

To become fluent with these groupings, you need to internalize where the five-note phrase begins and ends. Exercise 1 demonstrates a four-measure pattern of continuous 16th notes played using a sticking that allows us to easily hear the accents and five-note groupings. To begin, alternate between the first two measures of paradiddles with accents on each quarter-note pulse and the two measures of the accented five-note sticking. Play a foot pattern that helps you keep track of the pulse and barline.

Now play the five-note phrase over four measures of 16th notes. You can alternate between this four-bar exercise and four measures of paradiddles with quarter-note accents.

Try the following pattern while aligning the bass drum with the start of each five-note phrase and playing quarter notes with the hi-hat. You may want to isolate the first two bars before practicing the full pattern.

Now we’ll break up the continuous five-note groupings by only playing parts of each phrase. In the next three examples, the beginning of each five-note figure is indicated with an accent.

Here are the first three notes of each five-note grouping repeated for four measures. Play quarter notes with your hi-hat foot.

Here’s a rhythm composed of the first, third, and fourth 16th notes of the five-note phrase.

Exercise 6 isolates the first four notes of the phrase.

Let’s play two measures of a simple groove, and then play two measures of each of the previous rhythms as a fill. You can develop flexibility with these exercises by starting the fill at different places within the phrase. As you get comfortable with the rhythms, try varying the sticking, orchestration, and accents, and incorporate the bass drum.

Let’s try another fill that includes the bass drum. Once you’re comfortable with playing two measures of this phrase, repeat it for four measures to create more musical tension and variety.

Now we’ll explore some four-measure over-the-barline grooves. Start by alternating between an easy quarter-note groove and the first two measures of the five-note phrase.

Now we’ll alternate between a straight quarter-note pattern and the entire four-measure phrase.

Repeat each of the previous rhythms until you’ve internalized how the five-note groupings feel over a quarter-note pulse and within a four-bar phrase. Next time we’ll explore more challenging patterns based on these ideas.


Marc Dicciani is the dean of the College of Performing Arts at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. He’s played with Randy Brecker, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Jon Faddis, Pat Martino, Stanley Clarke, and Christian McBride, among others. Marc endorses Yamaha, Vic Firth, Remo, Zildjian, LP, and Mono. For more information, visit dicciani.com.