Nonchord Tones

Nonchord tones such as passing tones, neighbor tones, suspensions and appoggiaturas can help us connect notes in our melody that are within the chords that underpin them. They can also create points of emphasis that tweak our expectations of how the melody and harmony should relate to one another.

Now that you know that your melodies generally should be based on notes from within the chords that accompany them, you might wonder how you’re supposed to write melodies that contain two-thirds steps and only one-third skips and leaps. If we have a G chord, and writing using only G, B and D requires us to use skips and leaps, how are we supposed to write two-thirds steps?

The short answer is that we can do whatever we want, and we shouldn’t let this problem prevent us from doing what we want. But the longer answer is that there are devices that can help us avoid overemphasizing skips and leaps. These are known as nonchord tones, and they’re notes from outside the chords that underpin them.

Here’s an example that includes three nonchord tones.

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The first chord is C major (C, E, G), which does not contain the D on the last beat. In the second measure, A minor (A, C, E) does not include the G on the last beat. In the third measure, we have a B, which does not fit into the F major chord (F, A, C). These three notes (the D, the G and the B) are nonchord tones. The rest of the notes of the melody are within the chords that accompany them.

We’ll explore various types of nonchord tones below, but keep in mind that the following list is not exhaustive. (In fact, I’ve intentionally left out a few that don’t apply cleanly to pop songwriting. If you’re curious, you can investigate further here.) You may find that your own melodies contain nonchord tones that do not fit into one of these categories.

Passing Tones

Passing tones are one of the most common types of nonchord tone. To create a passing tone, we move by step from a note that is within the underlying chord to one that is not, and then by step again to another note from within the underlying chord. The steps can go up or down, but they both must go in the same direction.

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The circled notes above are passing tones. They are not members of the chords that accompany them – for example, D and F in the first measure are not part of the C major chord. And each time we have one, it is preceded by a chord tone a step away, and followed by a chord tone a step away.

Neighbor Tones

Neighbor tones are a type of nonchord tone that is similar to passing tones. Instead of moving twice in the same direction, though, neighboring tones move by step in the opposite direction – up by step and then down by step, or down by step and then up by step.

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In the first measure, we go down by step to D, then up by step. Both the E’s are notes from within the C chord. In the second measure, we go down by step to the B, and up by step to the C (which is still a chord tone, since it’s in the A minor chord as well as the F chord).

Now, we might think, “We’re singing a B against an F chord! Won’t that sound strange?” It won’t. If you were to hold out a B against an F chord, or we were to leap to a B within an F chord, that might sound strange. But because we’re moving by step from a chord tone, to the B, and back to a chord tone, the B sounds fine.

Suspensions

Suspensions are one of the most complex types of nonchord tones, but also perhaps the coolest. To produce a suspension, we need three elements:

-Preparation (P). This is simply a chord tone (that is, a note that is in the chord that accompanies it, like an E during a C chord) that occurs immediately before a suspension.

-Suspension (SUS).  This note is the same as the preparation, but the chord has changed, so now the note is a nonchord tone. This note may be tied (held out) from the preparation, or it may be rearticulated.

-Resolution (R). The suspension now resolves down by step to become a chord tone in the new chord. (Suspensions do not resolve up by step. If a nonchord tone exhibits all the characteristics of a suspension but resolves up by step, it’s called a retardation, which is also a usable nonchord tone, though a much less common one.)

Whew! Notice that the nonchord tone is the middle note, but the preparation and the resolution are also required in order for a suspension to take place.

Here’s what this might look like.

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So we’re in the key of C, and we hear a V7 chord (G7). We expect the V7 chord to resolve to I, but wait! The F from the V7 chord remains, leaving us with a chord consisting of C, G, C and F.

That doesn’t make sense – we’ve never seen a chord like that. And if we’re listening, our ears should be telling us something slightly strange is going on.

Then, the F resolves to E, giving us a chord of C, G, C and E. Ah! Now we recognize the I chord. So, in this example, the first F is the preparation – it appears normally, in the context of a V7 chord. Then the suspension occurs, and that top voice is still an F, but the context has changed so that F is no longer a member of the chord that underpins it. Then the F resolves down by step and becomes a chord tone again.

Note, also, that suspensions are accented, which means that the nonchord tone itself (“sus” in the example above) occurs at the same time as the chord change.

Look at the following example in D major. How might you be able to turn one of the whole notes in the second measure into two half notes to create a suspension?

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Suspensions can go in any register, but in this case, the highest voice goes from E to D, down by step. That’s exactly what we’re looking for when we consider a suspension, because the resolution must be a step lower than the suspension. Therefore, we can do a suspension like this.

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The E in the first measure is the preparation. The E that begins the second measure is the suspension, and the D to which it descends is the resolution.

Okay, now let’s try something trickier. Here is a melody. Find any areas where we might be able to use a suspension. Look at each chord change, and look for places where the melody goes down by step at the same time as one chord changes to another. You should be able to find three. Then, add suspensions.

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Here they are.

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A few points:

-To figure out where we could put suspensions, we looked for places where the melody descended by step and there was a chord change.

-We can’t put a suspension between the C and A in measure 2 because the melody descends by skip (down two letter names, from C to B to A), not by step (down by one letter name).

-We can’t put a suspension between the B and A in measure 7 because the B is not a chord tone, so it can’t serve as a preparation. Instead, the B is a passing tone.

-Finally, we may have to modify the chords we use slightly in order to accommodate the suspensions. In particular, we probably want to avoid suspensions that create clashes of half steps, or half steps separated by an octave. For example, look at the G in measure 6. If we play a D major chord against that G, we would probably get something like this.

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Try playing that – it doesn’t necessarily sound horrible, but it does sound a little confusing. There are two possible solutions to this problem. We could simply leave the F# out of the chord and play a D5 chord (just D and A, like a power chord), or we could play a suspended chord (also known as a sus chord).

If you’re a guitarist, you’re probably already familiar with sus chords – the Dsus4 chord is especially common.

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This chord (D, G and A, and guitarists usually add a second D, although it is not required) is called a Dsus4 chord because we have suspended the fourth (G) above the root (D). The idea is that this G will end up pointing down at F#.

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So this would be a better way to harmonize the melody above.

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Using the Dsus4 chord on the first beat of measure six helps prevent us from hearing F# against G, which might sound bad, depending on how we voice it. Note that we don’t necessarily have to change chords to accommodate the other suspensions, however, because they don’t create clashes of half steps. D against a C major chord (C, E, G) in measure 2 does not create any half-step relationships, and neither does E against D major (D, F#, A) in measure 4.

Appoggiaturas

Appoggiaturas are similar to suspensions in that the nonchord tone itself is accented and resolves down by step. Unlike with suspensions, though, the appoggiatura typically skips or leaps upward before resolving down by step to a chord tone.

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In the example above, the top voice skips from E (which is part of the C chord that accompanies it) up to a G. The G then resolves down to F#, which becomes the third of a D major chord.

Although the third beat produces a Dsus4 chord, this is not a suspension, because a suspension involves a preparation, in which a note is introduced as a chord tone and then remains to become a nonchord tone. (Suspensions and sus chords are closely related, but as we’ll discuss in the next chapter, not every sus chord produces a suspension.)

The Beatles’ “Yesterday” contains a prominent appoggiatura.

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At the end of the first measure here, the melody skips up from G (a note from the C7 chord), to Bb, a note that is not a part of the F chord. It then resolves down by step to A, a note from the F chord. As with suspensions, we sometimes want to modify chords where appoggiaturas occur so that they do not create clashes of half steps. In the example above, we don’t want A against Bb, so the Beatles modify the F chord by simply playing a bass note F against the Bb and introducing the A from the F chord later in the measure.

Look at the following example. Where could we introduce appoggiaturas?

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We’re looking for spots where a chord changes, and where the melody ascends at the same time. In measure 1, there is one such spot at the F# minor chord. But we can’t put an appoggiatura there, because the D that lands where the chord occurs is already a nonchord tone. (It’s a neighboring tone – see how it moves up by step and then down by step?)

The downbeat of measure 2, however, provides one opportunity to use an appoggiatura. We can skip up from the C# that ends the measure to an E, then resolve down to D. Also, we can skip from the B at the end of the second measure up to D at the beginning of measure 3, then resolve down to C#. If we do that, we’ll probably need to change the A chord to A5 or Asus4 on the first beat to avoid a clash between C# and D. We can also try leaping from C# in the third measure up to G# and then resolving down to F# in the F# minor chord. Also, we’ll change the F#m chord on beat 3 to F#sus2 to avoid the half-step clash between G# and A. (If playing the F#sus2 is too confusing, just replace it with F#5.)

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Generally, it’s probably wise to use appoggiaturas sparingly. Whether we’ve gone overboard here by including three of them is a matter of taste. Individually, though, they all sound good, and they give what had previously been a bland melody a pleasantly twisty quality. One could also make a good argument for the use of two appoggiaturas in quick succession in measure 3 – using nonchord tones in patterns can sometimes help our ears make sense of them.

Next Chapter: Sus Chords