Do Chords Limit the Notes I Can Use in My Melody?

Gary Ewerby Gary Ewer, author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting
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Background singersHow 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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″.
  3. 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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  1. Hello! I’m having trouble figure out what notes I can play over chords. For example, if I’m in the key of Cmin, and my melody goes over a BbMaj. chord (VII), can I play the A-flat that exists in the key of Cmin, but not Bflat Major? Or do all my notes have to exist in Bflat Maj. for that measure?

    • Hi Doug:

      The best way to figure this sort of thing out is to get a feel for the strong beat/weak beat pattern of your song. Most songs use a time signature that alternates between strong and weak, like 4/4 or common time. Generally speaking, the melody note that happens on a strong beat should belong to the chord of the moment, and then anything between the beats or on weak beats can either be chord tones or non-chord tones. So yes, you can play the A-flat, but the success of it will be better if it’s on a passing weak beat. It’s really up to your own ears and what you want to hear, of course.

      I’ve recently written two articles on this that might be helpful for you to read:

      1. Looking For Strong Beats to Add Chords to Melodies
      2. What to Do When Melody Notes Don’t Fit With a Chord

      I hope you find that useful, Doug. Just let me know if I can help further.

  2. Dear, Gary

    I’ve been wondering a lot about melody “construction”.
    I noticed in this song written and composed by Calvin Harris, called ‘Summer’ ( ), that he tends to hit the same note repeatedly.
    How can I make my melodies lead like that without starting to get boring? I do not honestly know how to explain this but I hope you understand where I am heading with this question.
    It’s very catchy and so memorable I even remember when this song came out.

    The verse starts with D, eight notes hit two times, followed up by G, A and then B with an eight note followed by a whole note (or half note?).
    So, how can I do this myself? I really wish to make a song that melts into your brain.

    I hope you understand and can help me out.


    • Yes, chromatic non chord tones (chr. passing tones especially) can all be used. Like diatonic non chord tones, the typical way of using them is that they normally should resolve to a chord tone.

  3. In Nelly Furtado – Say it right, the chord progression is as follows Fm D# C# A#m
    When the D# chord hits, in the exact same time the tone that the vocal melody is using is G# which by my basic knowledge should be dissonant, because the G# is not in the chord
    of D#(D#, G, A#). I’ve double checked the chord progression of the song and that D# chord is definitely not a sus4.

    Thank you!

    • I assume you’re talking about the chorus. First, since the key is Fm (key sig of 4 flats), the chords of the chorus should also use flats. So the progression is actually: Fm Eb Db Bbm. The Ab note that starts the chorus melody does in fact act as a sus4 over the Eb chord, which then resolves properly to the note G.


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