In today’s episode of PianoTV we’re going to be looking at melody writing tricks. These tricks all center around non-chord tones – and if that makes no sense to you now, it will soon!
With our Songwriting Workshop in full-swing, I’ve had melody on the mind. We talk quite a bit about melody writing in that course, but there’s so much on the topic that I figured I’d make an all-purpose video for everyone.
In this video we’re going to figure out what chord tones and non-chord tones are in a melody, and why they matter when you’re writing a melody. We’ll look at 4 common melody tricks (non-chord tones) that will make your melodies awesome.
Even if you’re not a songwriter and have no intention of being one, these melody writing tricks will give you further insight into the minds of composers. Next time you play a piece and you see a neighbor tone, it’ll be just another piece in the analysis puzzle.
Let’s get started!
Chord tones and non-chord tones
The first thing we need to talk about are chord tones and non-chord tones in the melody.
Say we have a tune like “Old McDonald”:
This is a nice, simple example because you have all the chords clearly laid out for you, and it’s in the key of C.
When you have a C chord (CEG) like in the beginning, the notes of a C chord are that bar’s chord tones. Any notes in the melody that are a C, E and G are a chord tone.
This means these melody notes will sound pleasant with the chord, since they’re the notes the chord is made up of.
A non-chord tone is a melody note that is NOT in the chord. An example is during the “Dm” chord (DFA) – the RH plays:
The “C” is a non-chord tone. It isn’t a note you find in a D minor chord.
Melodies are mostly made up of chord tones, with some non-chord tones thrown in to link everything together. If your melodies only had chord tones, it would be boring and there would never be any steps.
The temptation is, when first writing a song, to stick to only chord tones since they sound pleasing. But three notes (sometimes four) is limiting, and your melody is much less singable without some non-chord tones thrown in the mix.
We’re going to spend the rest of this video discussing several types of melody tricks – non-chord tones – and how they make a melody more interesting.
The most common melody trick, and the easiest to use, is the passing tone.
It’s what it sounds like: when we pass from a chord tone to another chord tone. In the process, we pass through a non-chord tone.
In this Czerny example, our chord is a G7. Our melody goes “DEF”. Our “E” is a passing tone because we’re passing through it to get to the next chord tone (the F, in G7).
In the second bar, our harmony is a C chord. This time we’re passing through F to link up the chord tones E and G.
I don’t want to overcomplicate things today but I wanted to mention that there are two types of passing tones – accented and unaccented. An unaccented passing tone like the one we just looked at means that we’re passing through the non-chord tone (our E, or our F as per the example) on a weak beat. This is the easiest way to sluff off a passing tone and have it sound good, by sneaking it in-between beats.
An accented passing tone, on the other hand, is where the non-chord tone happens ON the beat, not IN-BETWEEN the beat:
In Mozart’s Alla Turca, you can see plenty of accented passing tones (though I’ve only marked one). They follow all the same rules, except that the off-note happens on the on-beat.
Passing tones are critical to melodies – without them, our melodies would never have any stepwise motion, and would only ever exist as skips and leaps.
Neighbor tones are also simple to understand. Instead of passing through a note on our way up or down (like C-D-E or E-D-C), we start on a chord tone, move up (or down) to a non-chord tone, and then go back to the original chord tone.
So in this example we go from C-D-C. C is our chord tone, we move to the neighbor tone of D (non-chord tone), and then return to C. Easy-peasy!
Just like you can have accented passing tones, you can also have accented neighbor tones.
This is when the non-chord tone is happening ON the beat. This is much less common, and more difficult to use when you’re melody writing. But it’s definitely something you can do!
I’ve done an entire video just on appoggiaturas – they’re a classic melody writing technique. The main purpose of appoggiaturas is to create tension…and release.
Here’s how they work:
We have our chord tones in the V (G) chord:
And you’ll notice the appoggiatura in the melody is a C# (a non-chord tone that clashes), which then resolves to a D. The held C# gives us tension, and the shift to D gives us a release (since it moves to a chord tone).
Another appoggiatura in this example is in the I (C) chord:
This time, our appoggiatura takes us from the tense D# (non-chord tone) to the relieving E (chord tone).
Appoggiaturas, as a rule, last about one beat before resolving and usually move in a semitone (instead of a whole tone).
As already mentioned, the point of this melodic trick is to create tension. Good music is full of tension – without tension, you wouldn’t appreciate the easygoing chords and notes. It would just get boring. Classical music is full of tension – much more tension than typical pop music.
Suspensions are very similar to appoggiaturas – they create tension and give us a feeling of relief when they resolve.
But there’s one major difference:
Suspensions are notes that carry over from the previous chord (usually in the form of a tie).
It goes like this:
A chord tone is played and continues to be held even when the chord changes, where it becomes a non-chord tone. Then the suspension resolves into a chord tone.
In the above example, you’ll see that our first suspension moves from a C to a B. And you’ll notice that the harmony is changing from a “C” to a “G”. Our melody note, the C, holds even when the harmony changes to a G chord. It’s like a little delay. The melody is leisurely and taking its time to get to the chord tone.
You’ll see the rest are examples of moving from a “C” to “G7” chord with different ideas on what notes could be suspended.
Consider this a primer on non-chord tones – things get way more detailed once you’re into advanced-level harmony. But these are some good, easy-to-understand tricks for any beginner or intermediate player to start experimenting with.
I learned about all these different types of tones when studying for my RCM Grade 9 and 10 harmony exams, but I think they’re relevant to people in earlier levels as well. I encourage my students to understand and apply them even from a late beginner/intermediate level.
Hopefully you enjoyed this quick primer, and I’ll catch you in the next video!