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48: Embellishing Tones

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Lesson 48: Embellishing Tones

This lesson explains how non-chord tones are used in melodies.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:
Embellishing tones are non-chord tones (notes that aren't in the chord that's playing at that moment) which are inserted between the anchor notes in a melody. They give melodies much more variety than they would have if they could only use chord tones.

Embellishing tones usually follow several "rules" which help them not to get too much attention and sound dissonant against the chord that's playing:
  • They're usually short notes (eighth or sixteenth notes).
  • They're preceded or followed (usually both) by anchor notes.
  • They usually leave and approach their surrounding anchor notes by step, not by leap.
  • They usually fall on weak rhythm points—the "off-beat" fractions of a beat—compared to their surrounding anchor notes.

To learn how embellishing tones are used in real songs, we analyze melodies harmonically. This just means we label each note, as a chord tone (CT) or a particular type of embellishing tone. Embellishing tones are classified into several types. In this lesson we'll just introduce two of the most common types:
  • Neighbor tones (NT)
  • Passing tones (PT)

Neighbor Tones (NT)

A neighbor tone (NT) is an embellishing tone whose surrounding anchor notes are both the same pitch; this means that the neighbor tone is either a step above both anchor notes (an upper neighbor tone) or a step below (a lower neighbor tone).

Here's an example from Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone (see end of lesson for link), Verse 1 (00:16 in the recording). This also shows how we label the notes:

C CT Once NT up- CT on - NT a CT time NT you Dm7 CT dressed CT so CT fine -

C/E CT Threw CT the CT bums NT a CT dime CT in F - CT your CT prime

Neighbor tone two steps away?
You may have noticed a problem in the above example: Neighbor tones are "supposed to" be only one step away from their "anchor notes", so they don't attract too much attention and sound dissonant. But, the above neighbor tones appear to be two steps away (C-B-A) from their anchor notes.

Ah, but this is why we introduced the major pentatonic scale (Lesson 43: Pentatonic Scales) before this lesson. Remember, the C major pentatonic scale is just the pitches:

  C   D   E   G   A   (C again)

If we think the melody "feels pentatonic" here (which I do), then the A's are actually only one "pentatonic step" away from the C anchor notes.

Passing Tones (PT)

A passing tone (PT) is an embellishing tone which "bridges the gap" between anchor notes which are two steps apart. Here's a simple example:

C CT Ma- PT ry CT had PT a CT lit- CT tle CT lamb


You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
  • Analyze melodies: Label the chord tones (CT), neighbor tones (NT), and passing tones (PT). Get a feel for how often these different types of melody tones are used, and the musical effects they create.
  • Practice something different: Look at your own melodies. Are there patterns of CT, NT, and PT in other people's melodies which you haven't tried in your own melodies? Practice writing melodies using these "new" (for you) CT/NT/PT patterns.

Song link:
For Like A Rolling Stone, I used the recording from The Essential Bob Dylan ($1.29 at Amazon as of this writing).


1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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