How can chords, which typically use only 3 or 4 notes, allow for melodies that use many more? For example, if the chord you’re playing is Cm, which uses the notes C-Eb-G, does this mean that the only notes your melody can use over that chord are C, Eb and/or G? The quick answer is: no – you can use many more. And in fact, most of the melodies you hear in hit songs are comprised of a combination of chord tones, and non-chord-tones.
Melodies that use only chord tones are somewhat rare, and rather simplistic: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, for example. All of the notes from that melody come from the chord being played at any given moment.
Other songs, mainly the ones that use scale passages, use a combination of chord tones as well as notes not existing in the actual harmonizing chord of the moment. The notes not found in the chord are non-chord tones.
The main fear that songwriters have is that they’re going to use melody notes that clash with the chord progression. Of course, you don’t want to do that. So how do you use non-chord tones without sounding like they’re overly discordant?
There are many ways to incorporate these so-called non-chord tones into a melody. I’ve listed the three most common types below, with song examples that demonstrate their use:
- Passing Tones. Try this: play a C chord while singing this little 3-note melody: C-D-E. The notes C and E both exist in the C chord, so they’re chord tones. The D melody note in the middle is a non-chord tone because it doesn’t exist in a C chord. It’s a passing tone because the three notes move by step, starting on a chord tone, passing through a non-chord tone, and finishing on a different chord tone. Passing tones are the most common type of non-chord tone, and they exist in almost every song. But for an example that’s easy to hear, listen to the opening of Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” – he sings the notes C-D-E while the accompanying chord is a C.
- Neighbouring Tones. A neighbouring tone is simple: you start on a chord tone, move up one note, then return to the original note. The note in the middle is the neighbouring tone. Again, this is a common non-chord tone. The opening three notes of “Think of Me”, from “Phantom of the Opera”, is a perfect example of an upper neighbouring tone, while “Crazy Talk” uses lower neighbouring tones starting at 0′ 57″.
- Suspensions. Every guitarist knows what sus-chords are, but for a technical description, here’s what’s going on: a suspension happens when a singer sings a note that’s in the chord, then keeps singing the note while the chord underneath changes. Now that note, which was a chord tone, is a non-chord tone. It is resolved by moving downward by step. So the suspension occurs because the note is “held up”, or “suspended”, then allowed to fall. In Lionel Ritchie’s song, “Endless Love,” Diana Ross’ first line uses a suspension on the word “first.”
It’s best not to worry too much about this concept of non-chord tones, because if you use your musical instincts you’ll usually use them correctly. For example, suspensions really do sound like they want to resolve downward. So the best advice is simply to follow your gut, and have melodies move the way they “want to.”
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