Neighboring Tones Music Definition Essay

A nonchord tone (NCT), nonharmonic tone, or embellishing tone is a note (i.e., a pitch) in a piece of music or song that is not part of the implied or expressed chord set out by the harmonic framework. Similarly, a chord tone is a note that is a part of the functional chord (see: factor (chord)). Nonchord tones are most often discussed in the context of the common practice period of classical music, but they can be used in the analysis of other types of tonal music as well, such as Western popular music.

Chord and nonchord tones are defined by their membership (or lack of membership) in a chord: "The pitches which make up a chord are called chord-tones: any other pitches are called non-chord-tones."[1] They are also defined by the time at which they sound: "Nonharmonic tones are pitches that sound along with a chord but are not chord pitches."[2] For example, if an excerpt from a piece of music implies or uses a C major chord, then notes C, E and G are members of that chord, while any other note played at that time (e.g., notes such as F♯) is a nonchord tone. Such tones are most obvious in homophonic music but occur at least as frequently in contrapuntal music.

"Most nonharmonic tones are dissonant and create intervals of a second, fourth or seventh",[2] which are required to resolve to a chord tone in conventional ways. If the note fails to resolve until the next change of harmony, it may instead create a seventh chord or extended chord. While it is theoretically possible that for a three-note chord there are (in equal temperament) nine possible nonchord tones, nonchord tones are usually in the prevailing key. Augmented and diminished intervals are also considered dissonant, and all nonharmonic tones are measured from the bass, or lowest note sounding in the chord except in the case of nonharmonic bass tones.[2]

Nonharmonic tones generally occur in a pattern of three pitches, of which the nonharmonic tone is the center:[2]

Preceding toneNonharmonic toneFollowing tone
(chord tone)(chord tone)

Nonchord tones are distinguished through how they are used. The most important distinction is whether they occur on a strong or weak beat and are thus accented or unaccented.[2] They are also distinguished by their direction of approach and departure and the voice or voices in which they occur, and the number of notes they contain.

Over the centuries of music history, tones which were considered to be nonchord tones came to be viewed as chord tones, such as the seventh in a seventh chord. In 1940s-era bebop jazz, tones which were previously considered to be nonchord tones, such as playing an F♯ note with a C7 chord, became to be viewed as chord tones (in this example, the F♯ would be analyzed as a sharp eleventh chord, or C7(♯11)). In European classical music "The greater use of dissonance from period to period as a result of the dialectic of linear/vertical forces led to gradual normalization of ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords [in analysis and theory]; each additional non-chord tone above the foundational triad became frozen into the chordal mass."[3]

Certainly no one doubts the need for embellishments....They are indeed indispensable, for consider their uses. They connect notes, animate them, lend them a special effect and weight when required, make them pleasing and thus arouse a particular attentiveness. Embellishments help to clarify the content of the notes—be it sad, joyful, or of other nature....

— C.P.E. Bach (1753), [4]



An anticipation (ANT) occurs when this note is approached by step and then remains the same. It is basically a note of the second chord played early. The dissonant (B, 7th degree of the C Major scale) in bar 1 is approached by step and resolves when that same pitch becomes a chord tone in bar 2..

Neighbor tone[edit]

A neighbor tone (NT) or auxiliary note (AUX) is a nonchord tone that passes stepwise from a chord tone directly above or below it (which frequently causes the NT to create dissonance with the chord) and resolves to the same chord tone:

In practice and analysis, neighboring tones are sometimes differentiated depending upon whether or not they are lower or higher than the chord tones surrounding them. A neighboring tone that is a step higher than the surrounding chord tones is called an upper neighboring tone or an upper auxiliary note while a neighboring tone that is a step lower than the surrounding chord tones is a lower neighboring tone or lower auxiliary note. However, following Heinrich Schenker's usage in Free Composition, some authors reserve the term "neighbor note" to the lower neighbor a half step below the main note.[6]

The German term Nebennote is a somewhat broader category, including all nonchord tones approached from the main note by step.[6]

Escape tone[edit]

An escape tone (ET) or echappée is a particular type of unaccented incomplete neighbor tone that is approached stepwise from a chord tone and resolved by a skip in the opposite direction back to the harmony.

Passing tone[edit]

A passing tone (PT) or passing note is a nonchord tone prepared by a chord tone a step above or below it and resolved by continuing in the same direction stepwise to the next chord tone (which is either part of the same chord or of the next chord in the harmonic progression). Where two non-chord notes are before the resolution they are double passing tones or double passing notes.


Passing tone[edit]

As with above but on an accented beat.

Neighbor tone[edit]

A neighbor tone where you step up or down from the chord tone, and then move back to the chord tone.[8]


Endeavor, moreover, to introduce suspensions now in this voice, now in that, for it is incredible how much grace the melody acquires by this means. And every note which has a special function is rendered audible thereby.

— Johann Joseph Fux (1725), [10]

A suspension (SUS) (sometimes referred to as a syncope[9]) occurs when the harmony shifts from one chord to another, but one or more notes of the first chord (the "Preparation") are either temporarily held over into or are played again against the second chord (against which they are nonchord tones called the "Suspension") before resolving downwards to a chord tone by step (the "Resolution"). Note that the whole process is called a suspension as well as the specific non-chord tone(s):

Suspensions may be further described using the number of the interval forming the suspension and its resolution; e.g. 4-3 suspension, 7-6 suspension, or 9-8 suspension. Suspensions must resolve downwards; if a tied note is prepared like a suspension but resolves upwards, it is called a retardation. Common retardations include 2-3 and 7-8 retardations. A suspension must be prepared with the same note (in the same voice) using a chord tone in the preceding chord; otherwise it is an appoggiatura.

Decorated suspensions are common and consist of portamentos or double eighth notes, the second being a lower neighbor tone.

A chain of suspensions constitutes the fourth species of counterpoint; an example may be found in the second movement of Arcangelo Corelli's "Christmas Concerto".


An appoggiatura (APP) is a type of accented incomplete neighbor tone approached skip-wise from one chord tone and resolved stepwise to another chord tone ("overshooting" the chord tone).


A portamento is the late Renaissance precursor to the anticipation,[11] though today it refers to a glissando.

Nonharmonic bass[edit]

Nonharmonic bass notes are bass notes that are not a member of the chord below which they are written.

Examples include the Elektra chord.[13] See also: pandiatonic.

Involving more than three notes[edit]

Changing tones[edit]

Changing tones (CT) are two successive nonharmonic tones. A chord tone steps to a nonchord tone which skips to another nonchord tone which leads by step to a chord tone, often the same chord tone. They may imply neighboring tones with a missing or implied note in the middle. Also called double neighboring tones or neighbor group.[2]

Pedal point[edit]

Main article: Pedal point

Another form of nonchord tone is a pedal point or pedal tone (PD) or note, almost always the tonic or dominant, which is held through a series of chord changes. The pedal point is almost always in the lowest voice (the term originates from organ playing), but it may be in an upper voice; then it may be called an inverted pedal. It may also be between the upper and lower voices, in which case it is called an internal pedal.

Chromatic nonharmonic tone[edit]

A chromatic nonharmonic tone is a nonharmonic tone that is chromatic, or outside of the key and creates half-step motion. The use of which, especially chromatic appoggiaturas and chromatic passing tones, increased in the Romantic Period.[14]

See also[edit]


Example of nonchord tones (in red)  Play (help·info).
2-3 suspension in Lassus's Beatus vir in sapientia, mm.23-24 ( Play (help·info)). Note that the suspended tone is in the lower voice.
Corelli Christmas Concerto 2nd movement. Listen
Nonharmonic bass from Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms 3rd mov. ( Play (help·info)) [12]
  1. ^Kroepel, Bob (1993). Mel Bay Creative Keyboard's Deluxe Encyclopedia of Piano Chords: A Complete Study of Chords and How to Use Them, p.8. ISBN 978-0-87166-579-9. Emphasis original.
  2. ^ abcdefBenward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.92. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  3. ^"Debussy and the Crisis of Tonality", p.72. Author(s): Roland Nadeau. Source: Music Educators Journal, Vol. 66, No. 1, (Sep., 1979), pp. 69-73. Published by: MENC: The National Association for Music Education.
  4. ^Forte, Allen (1979). Tonal Harmony in Concept & Practice, p.388. ISBN 0-03-020756-8.
  5. ^Jonas, Oswald (1982) Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (1934: Das Wesen des musikalischen Kunstwerks: Eine Einführung in Die Lehre Heinrich Schenkers), p.89. Trans. John Rothgeb. ISBN 0-582-28227-6.
  6. ^ abWilliam Drabkin. "Non-harmonic note". In L. Root, Deane. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. (subscription required)
  7. ^ abJonas (1982), p.94.
  8. ^"Nonharmonic Tones". 
  9. ^ abcJonas (1982), p.96.
  10. ^Forte (1979), p.304.
  11. ^Benward & Saker (2009). Music in Theory and Practice, Vol. II, p.8. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  12. ^Andriessen, Louis & Schönberger, Elmer (2006). The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky. Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9789053568569.
  13. ^Lawrence Kramer. "Fin-de-siècle Fantasies: Elektra, Degeneration and Sexual Science", Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2. (Jul., 1993), pp. 141-165.
  14. ^ abBenward & Saker (2009), p.217-18.

Passing Tone (PT)

A passing tone is a melodic embellishment (typically a non-chord tone) that occurs between two stable tones (typically chord tones), creating stepwise motion. The typical figure is chord tone – passing tone – chord tone, filling in a third (see example), but two adjacent passing tones can also be used to fill in the space between two chord tones a fourth apart. A passing tone can be either accented (occurring on a strong beat or strong part of the beat) or unaccented (weak beat or weak part of the beat).

Complete Neighbor Tone (NT)

Like the passing tone, a complete neighbor tone is a melodic embellishment that occurs between two stable tones (typically chord tones); however, a complete neighbor tone will occur between two instances of the same stable tone. Also like the passing tone, movement from the stable tone to the neighbor tone and back will always be by step. A complete neighbor can be either accented or unaccented, but unaccented is more common.

Double Neighbor Figure (DN)

Like the complete neighbor figure, the double neighbor figure begins and ends on the same stable tone (typically a chord tone). Between those two instances of the stable tone are two embellishing tones — one a step above and the other a step below the stable tone being embellished. Though individually we may consider each of the two embellishing tones to be incomplete neighbors (below), working together in the double-neighbor figure they balance each other out and create a contiguous whole, with the overall stability of a complete neighbor. A double neighbor figure is typically unaccented.

Incomplete Neighbor Tone (INT)

The incomplete neighbor tone is an unaccented embellishing tone that is approached by leap and proceeds by step to an accented stable tone (typically a chord tone). Broadly speaking an incomplete neighbor tone is any embellishing tone a step away from a stable tone that proceeds or follows it (and is connected on the other side by leap), but other kinds of incomplete neighbor tones have special names and roles that follow below.

Appoggiatura (APP)

An appoggiatura is a kind of incomplete neighbor tone that is accented, approached by leap (usually up), and followed by step (usually down, but always in the opposite direction of the preceding leap) to a more stable tone (typically a chord tone).

Escape Tone (ESC)

An escape tone, or echappée, is a kind of incomplete neighbor tone that is unaccented, preceded by step (usually up) from a chord tone, and followed by leap (usually down, but always in the opposite direction of the preceding step).

Anticipation (ANT)

An anticipation is essentially an otherwise stable tone that comes too early. An anticipation is typically a non-chord tone that will occur immediately before a change of harmony, and it will be followed on that change of harmony by the same note, now a chord tone of the new harmony. It is typically found at the ends of phrases and larger formal units.

Syncopation (SYN)

Syncopation occurs when a rhythmic pattern that typically occurs on strong beats or strong parts of the beat occurs instead on weak beats or weak parts of the beat. Like the anticipation, the syncopated note is an early arrival — it tends to belong to the chord on the following beat. Unlike the anticipation, the syncopation is tied into a note in that chord; it is not rearticulated. Rather than anticipating a note in the chord that follows, a syncopation is simply an early arrival.

Suspension (SUS)

A suspension is formed of three critical parts: the preparation (accented or unaccented), the suspension itself (accented), and the resolution (unaccented). The preparation is a chord tone (consonance). The suspension is the same note as the preparation and occurs simultaneous with a change of harmony. The suspension then proceeds down by step to the resolution, which occurs over the same harmony as the suspension. The suspension is in many respects the opposite of the syncopation: if the anticipation is an early arrival of a tone belonging to the following chord, a suspension is a lingering of a chord tone belonging to the previous chord that forces the late arrival of the new chord’s chord tone. However, in composition and improvisation, the suspension must be treated with a great deal more care than the syncopation. The most common suspensions (and their resolutions) in upper voices form the following intervallic patterns against the bass: 9–8, 7–6, 4–3. (With the exception of 9–8, the pitch class of the resolution tone should never sound in another voice simultaneous with the suspended tone.) Instead of SUS, it is more typical to notate the intervallic pattern in the thoroughbass figures.

Retardation (RET)

A retardation is essentially an upward-resolving suspension. It is almost always reserved for the final chord of a large formal division (or a movement), and it frequently appears simultaneously with a suspension (as seen in the example). Instead of RET, it is preferable to notate the intervallic pattern in the thoroughbass figures.


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