A Survey of Music Theory for the College Classroom: Diatonic Harmony

Nonchord Tones (Nonharmonic Tones)

Overview

Nonchord tones (abbreviated NCT), also known as nonharmonic tones (abbreviated NHT), are notes that are not a member of a harmonizing chord. The primary purpose of NCTs is to create richer and more varied melodies, but they are also regularly used in interior voices and in bass lines. A common method of identifying NCTs is to place brackets or parentheses around the NCT and then to name it with an abbreviation.

Some NCTs can be accented or unaccented, while others such as the suspension are always accented. An accented NCT occurs on a strong beat or on the strong part of a beat, while an unaccented NCT happens on a weak beat or on the weak part of a beat. Accented NCTs usually feature a more striking or dissonant sound in relation to the prevailing harmony.

NCTs can be diatonic (within the key) or chromatic (outside of the key). The majority of NCTs are diatonic, but chromatic NCTs are found with increasing frequency in music of the Romantic period. NCTs can also be shorter than a beat or longer than a beat. Longer NCTs – particularly appoggiaturas – are more frequent in music of the Romantic period.

Common NCTs in Music

There are several common NCTs encountered in tonal music, and the names, abbreviations, and approaches/resolutions of these standard NCTs are described below.

Passing Tone

Passing tones (pt) are approached by step and left by step in the same direction. Passing tones can be accented or unaccented (most common) and may be diatonic (most common) or chromatic. Passing tones are one of the two NCTs found in second species counterpoint. When adding passing tones to a musical line, look for notes within an individual voice that are a third apart.

passing tones

Neighbor Tone

Neighbor tones (nt) are approached by step and left by step in the opposite direction. Unaccented neighbor tones are the most common. Neighbor tones are one of the two NCTs found in second species counterpoint. When adding neighbor tones to a texture, look for notes that are repeated within a voice.

neighbor tones

Neighbor Group

Neighbor groups (ng) or double neighbor figures consist of a lower and upper neighbor tone, one a step above and the other a step below the chord tone that is embellished. As with neighbor tones, look for notes that are repeated within a voice.

neighbor group

Suspension 

Suspensions (s) are approached by the same tone and left (resolved) by step down. Suspensions are accented and call a lot of attention to the NCT and to the harmonizing chord. They consist of three parts.

  • Preparation – the note to be suspended is prepared by being part of a chord.
  • Suspension – the note is suspended (held or repeated) when the chord changes.
  • Resolution – the suspended note resolves down by step to become a member of the chord.

Suspensions are labeled with numbers that show the simple interval distances between the bass note and the dissonant suspended note and its resolution. The most common suspensions are 9-8 (or 2-1 when the resolution is a unison), 7-6, 4-3, 6-5 (the "consonant" suspension because both notes are consonances), and the 2-3 bass suspension in which the bass features the suspended note and resolution.

Suspensions can be added whenever a voice steps down a note in the next chord. They can be found anywhere within the phrase but are especially effective at cadences. Suspensions with change of bass appear when the bass moves at the same time as the resolution, creating suspensions such as the 9-6 suspension, which is the most common of the suspensions with change of bass.

suspensions

Retardation

Retardations (r) are approached by the same tone and left (resolved) by step up. Like suspensions, retardations are accented and call extra attention to the NCT and to the harmony. Holding the leading tone over in an authentic cadence creates a common retardation. Retardations are not commonly found in the interior portions of phrases.

retardation

Appoggiatura

Appoggiaturas (app) are incomplete neighbors that are approached by leap and left by step. The leap is usually but not always up, and the resolution by step is usually but not always in the direction opposite to the leap. Appoggiaturas are almost always accented and are most often in the melody. When adding an appoggiatura to a texture, look for places where the melody or another voice steps or leaps up.

appoggiatura

Escape Tone

Escape tones (et) are incomplete neighbors that are approached by step (usually up) and normally resolved by leap in the opposite direction. Escape tones are almost always unaccented, lending a milder sound than the appoggiatura. When adding escape tones to a texture, look for places where a note steps down or leaps down to the next chord tone.

escape tone

Anticipation

Anticipations (ant) are approached by step (usually) or leap (less frequently) and resolve by the same tone (usually) or by leap (less frequently). While they can be used anywhere within a phrase and in any voice, the most typical use is at cadences, where the tonic note is anticipated prior to the tonic chord.

anticipation

Pedal Point (Pedal Tone)

The name for the pedal points (ped) comes from organ music, where pedal points are used in the foot pedals while the organist continues playing the manuals (keyboards) with the hands. Pedal points or pedal tones consist of notes that are held while the chord changes. The pedal note begins as a chord tone in the harmony, then becomes a nonchord tone when harmonies change, and then becomes a chord tone once again when the harmonies resolve.

Pedal points most frequently sustain the dominant or tonic notes toward the end of compositions or important sections. Pedal points can be held (sustained) notes, repeated notes, or even notes interrupted by rests and then rearticulated. While most pedal points are in the bass of a given texture, inverted pedals in which the pedal point is in the interior voices or in the soprano/melodic voice can also be found.

In both major and minor keys, the most typical harmonies include the use of the subdominant and dominant chords above the tonic pedal and the tonic chord above the dominant pedal. Note that inversions are not indicated above pedals because the sound of the inverted chord is fundamentally changed by the presence of the pedal.

pedal points

Next is an example of an SATB texture illustrating how a texture can be activated by including a variety of NCTs. It is apparent that using a mixture of chords in root position and inversion as well as adding an assortment of NCTs greatly adds to the musical interest of a passage. You should play the following example at the piano both with and without the added NCTs to hear the difference. Note that the F in the alto in measure 5 is the seventh of a V7 chord. While this seventh is approached in passing motion and sounds like a normal passing tone, it functions as the seventh of the chord. We will further examine approaches to the seventh in Dominant Seventh Chords chapter.

SATB example activated with NCTs

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