A non-chord tone (sometimes referred to as a non-harmonic tone )is a note which is not part of the accompanying harmony. It may be diatonic or chromatic and usually serves either to embellish or to "smooth out" melodic motion between or around chord tones. Melodic lines rarely remain exclusively within the confines of the given harmony. Without these additional non-chord tones, musical lines would be able to only outline the triad (like a bugle call) or proceed in a homophonic texture. Consider the following two examples, the first without non-chord tones and the second with NCTs:
Example 1b: Nun danket alle Gott with NCTs
Non-chord tones (abbreviated NCT) may occur on strong beats, weak beats, or on subdivisions of the beat. They may be used in combination with other types of NCTs or by themselves. When deciding when to use NCTs, a simple analogy may help: adding NCTs to music is like adding peppers to a recipe: a few may help make it more interesting, but too many can ruin it!
Depending on how they and when they are approached and resolved, NCT's function in a variety of ways. Some function primarily melodically, helping to embellish or smooth out a line. Others function primarily harmonically creating greater harmonic tension and release. The table and examples below define the various types of NCT's. You may click on any of the names for more information on that NCT, or you may simply scroll down the page.
Classification of Non-Chord Tones
|Passing Tone||p||Step||Step in same direction||Melodic|
|Neighboring Tone||n||Step||Step in opposite direction||Melodic|
or Changing Tones
|Step||(two notes: one above and one below chord tone)||Melodic|
|Escape Tone||e||Step||Leap in opposite direction||Melodic|
|Suspension||s||Same tone||Step down||Harmonic|
|Retardation||r||Same tone||Step up||Harmonic|
|Anticipation||ant||Step or Leap||Same tone as following note||Harmonic|
|Pedal Point||ped||(none)||(suspension of the same tone throughout)||Harmonic|
Passing tones allow smooth, scale-wise motion in tonal music by "filling-in" the space between two primary notes. These primary notes are usually a third apart, with the passing tone being the diatonic scale degree in between. However, other intervals may also have passing tones between them. Two or more passing tones might be used to smooth over a leap of a fourth, or a single, chromatic passing tone may be used to strengthen the movement of a major second. Passing tones are among the most common and frequently used NCTs.
Neighbor tones are notes one scale degree above or below the primary tone and are used to provide rhythmic interest between common tones. Chromatic neighboring tones are frequently used because of the strong half-step resolution they possess.
A suspension holds a consonant chord tone beyond the chord to which it belongs and into the next chord before "dropping" down a step to resolve. A Suspension has three parts: a preparation (the initial, consonant attack), a suspension (when the chord changes, but the suspended note doesn't), and a resolution when the suspension proceeds down to the consonant chord tone a second below.) When several suspensions occur in a row, they are referred to as a chain of suspensions . Example 1b has an example of this in the 3rd complete measure.
A Retardation is similar to a suspension except that the resolution is up a step, not down. It also has a preparation (the initial, consonant attack), a suspension (when the chord changes, but the suspended note doesn't), and a resolution when the suspension proceeds up a second to the consonant chord tone.) Unlike suspensions, retardations seldom occur one after another in a chain.
An Appoggiatura has an effect similar to a suspension without a preparation. It is a NCT occurring on the beat (accented) and resolves down a step. It is not, however, held over from the previous note, but usually is approached by an upward leap. This expressive type of NCT is frequently found in music of the Romantic period, due to its powerful "yearning" to resolve.
Escape tones "escape" from the harmony by step, then leap in the opposite direction to freedom in the next chord. In this manner, they are a type of reverse appoggiatura. Chromatic escape tones are rarely found due to the non-stepwise resolution.
Neighbor Group Tones (sometimes referred to as changing tones) consist of two notes: one a scale degree above and one a scale degree below the primary tone. Like neighboring tones, they are used to provide rhythmic interest between common tones. In this type of NCT, either of the two neighboring tones may come first and is followed by the other before resolving back to the initial tone from which they left.
As the name would suggest, an Anticipation is a note that just couldn't wait for the next chord and sounds early. It is approached by either a step or a leap from a consonant note to the dissonance, then usually resolves by step. When resolved by a leap, it is often referred to as a free anticipation .
A Pedal Point is unique among NCTs in that begins on a consonance, sustains (or repeats) through another chord as a dissonance until the harmony, not the NCT, resolves back to a consonance. Often used in the bass as a device to strengthen a final cadence, a pedal point has a strong tonal effect, "pulling" the harmony back to its root. When a pedal point occurs in a voice other than the bass, it is usually referred to as an inverted pedal point .