Embellishing Tones

Much is made in theory text books about non-harmonic tones, or (worse) non-essential tones, as they are traditionally called. These are notes that are not directly a part of the vertical chord in question, but exist to create linear flow and harmonic interest.

To call them non-harmonic tones is misleading, since they are part of the harmony, clearly. They are just not a part of the actual triad that one may be indentifying in any one moment in a piece. But a part of the harmony, surely.

To call them non-essential is worse, since without these tones, there would be no expressive music. Indeed, one might say that in fact these are the essential tones!

Here, I make use of Gauldin's term "Embellishing tones", which at least gets at the fact the tones that are outside the functional harmony but exist to embellish or bring interest to the harmonic progression.

We could also simply call them "expressive tones", since that's what they seem to do.

Ultimately, these are tools worth knowing about because they remind you, when you are writing, that there is a lot you can do with voice leading beyond simply connecting chord tone to chord tone. Use can use these tones to create tension and melodic interest. When you analyze harmonies, it is of course important to know about these devices because they will help you separate out what notes form the fundamental triadic harmony and what notes exist to create color, tension and resolution.

Passing tones

Passing tones are the easiest of the tones to understand, use and identify. They are notes that are off the beat the pass from one chord tone to another. You will them typically as eighth notes passing between two quarter note harmonies in Bach chorales, for example.

There are two types of passing tones: accented and unaccented. Unaccented passing tones occur between the beats of a measure.

This excerpt from the Christmas Carol "The First Noel" is a good example of the unaccented passing tone. All the off-beat eighth notes here in each voice is a passing tone. These tones help move the song forward, especially during periods of static harmony, such as during the first two measures.


Upper and Lower Neighbors

Neighbor tones are tones that move up or down from a chord tone into a non-chord tone, but instead of passing on to the next chord tone, return to the starting notes. Trills are a form of neigbor tone. Neighbor tones primarily serve to keep musical lines flowing and keep the ear entertained. All the off-beat eighth notes here are upper or lower neighbors. Notice how they can appear in pairs, as in the first four measures, or as part of an individual melodic line.


We saw a perfect example of an anticipation when we analyzed the Bach chorale Herzliebster Jesu. At the final cadence, before the arrival the V/V, the melody drops down in an A just before the harmony. The A is clearly not a part of the G minor chord, it is not a passing tone because it doesn't continue moving down, nor is it a neighbor tone because it doesn't return to the original note. It is clearly anticipating the harmony to come and just can't seem to wait. I think of an anticipation as an gleefully impatient child running ahead of her parents when the playground is in sight.

Escape Tones

Escape tones are tones the leap upwards or downwards from  chord tone to a non-chord tone, but then resolve immediately to a chord tone. These are sometimes called "incomplete neighbors" but I find that a strange and unhelpful term. What is an incomplete neighbor? The kid next store who didn't finish high school? Escape tone rather thrillingly describes what the note does: it escpaes out of the harmony into a non chord tone and then moves unpredictably into a chord tone. Most often the escpape tone is reached by a leap and then resolves by a step, but sometimes it can "escape" by moving a step, but then resolves by leap.

Here, you can easily see the notes that leap away from the chord tone, seeking freedom, only to be rounded up by the harmony guards and brought back into the "prison" of the next chord! Maybe this is why, when Schoenberg invented a way to create music without reference to harmony, he called it "the emancipation of the dissonance."


You are already aware of suspensions through your work in counterpoint and through your analysis of Bach chorales. As you compose more, look for opportunities to bring suspensions into your writing. The fundamental definition of a suspension is that it is a chord tone that is held over from a previous harmony, becomes a dissonant note in the new harmony (usually a fourth or a ninth above the root) which resolves downwards into the chord tone.

If you refer back to our analysis of the Bach chorales, there were already plenty of 4-3 and 9-8 suspensions. This technique has far-reaching implications, as suspensions and off-set resolutions can be used to increasingly "wash out" a clear sense of harmonic progression, a tendency that developed increasingly in 19th century writing.


Appoggiatura comes from the italian word appoggiare, which means literally "to lean." Thus they are leaning tones and are differentiating from suspensions due to the fact that are accented dissonances that are not carried over from a previous harmony but are struck "afresh" along with the harmony and then resolve into a chord tone. You will often see these referred to as "accented passing tones," but "appoggiatura" is still very much in the contemporary musician's vocabulary, so you should understand them in these terms. Often in Classical era music, the appogiatura was written as a small grace note, place ahead of the beat, but nevertheless designed to be played in the following manner:

All the eighth note passages begin on non-chord tones, moving by step into a chord tone. Accented passing tones, appoggiature, tend to be in this style, with descending passages falling into chord tones.

All of these tones you should use in your writing and be able to recognize in your analyses.

NEXT: 5D Composing for Choir

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