Grade Six Music Theory - Harmony Lesson 5: Melodic Decoration
What is Melodic Decoration?echa
There are several ways that we can make a harmonic line more interesting - liven it up a little - so that it doesn't sound like a boring, simple progression of chords.
The different techniques we can use to do this are, as a group, called "melodic decoration", and can be found in any of the harmonic lines.
Notes which form part of the melodic decoration are also known as "non-chord" notes, because they are not part of the actual chord chosen for the harmony.
Look at these bars taken from a Bach Chorale BWV 2.6. The first score shows the "bare bones" harmony - each chord is spelled out using the notes you would expect, with one chord per beat.
Bach added some melodic decoration to this harmonisation, making it a lot more interesting. Can you spot the differences?
Each type of melodic decoration has a name. You'll need to learn the names and how to recognise the decorations in a piece of music. For grade 6, you don't need to actually write any melodic decorations. But, you will see them, both in the harmonisation questions and in the general knowledge section (questions 4 & 5).
Types of Melodic Decoration
These are the types of melodic decoration or ("non-chord notes") you need to know about for Grade VI Theory:
Non-chord notes can be either accented or unaccented.
1. Passing Notes
A passing note falls in between two different chord notes. For example, the notes C and E are both part of the C major chord, so they are both chord notes. They are a third apart. The D (marked *) falls between them, so it is a passing note.
Passing notes can be harmonic or chromatic.
Harmonic passing notes are notes that naturally occur in the key of the piece, like in the previous example. They usually happen when the two chord notes are a third (major or minor) apart.
Chromatic passing notes have an accidental added because they don't occur naturally in the key of the piece. For example, this passing note is C# - it falls between the two chord notes C and D. Chromatic passing notes usually happen when the two chord notes are a major second apart.
The passing notes above are unaccented, because they fall on a weak beat of the bar (between two chords). Passing notes which fall on a strong beat are called accented passing notes. Compare the following with the first example - this time the D is sounded on the strong beat - at the same time as the second chord. This time it's an accented passing note.
It's possible to have more than one passing note - the chord notes G - C here are filled in with two passing notes, A (unaccented) and B (accented).
2. Auxiliary Notes (also called "Neighbour Notes")
An auxiliary note falls between two chord notes which are the same. It can be higher or lower than the chord note, and it can be chromatically altered (have an accidental).
Auxiliary notes can be either accented or unaccented, just like passing notes.
3. Changing Notes (Cambiata & Echappee)
There are two types of changing note.
The first type falls between two notes which are often a fourth apart:
Look at the soprano line. The notes G-D are a fourth apart, and the changing note, F, falls between them. It's not a passing note, because passing notes always move by step. This kind of changing note is also called the cambiata.
The cambiata moves down by step (from G-F), then falls by a third in the same direction (F-D). The next note (E) is then a step upwards (D-E). This kind of decoration was more common in Renaissance music (1400-1600).
Try to learn it as down 2nd, down 3rd, up 2nd.
The second type of changing note falls outside of the two chord notes:
Look at the soprano line. B and G are chord notes. The C is the changing note. This kind of changing note is also called the Echappee.
The Echappee moves by step in one direction (B-C) and then by a leap in the opposite direction (C-G), or vice-versa.
Try to learn it as step one way, leap the other. This kind of decoration was more common in Baroque music (1600-1750).
An anticipation happens when we write a chord note earlier than expected - in the beat before the rest of the chord sounds. Here, the B is part of the G major chord. The G major chord is sounded on the 2nd beat, but the B is sounded earlier, on the half beat before, so it is an anticipation. Anticpations are approached by a downwards motion (e.g the C falls to B).
The B is not part of the C major chord, even though it is heard at the same time. For this reason, it is a non-chord note.
Suspensions are the opposite of anticipations. A suspension happens when we write a chord note later than expected - during the beat after the rest of the chord sounds. In this example, the B doesn't sound immediately with the rest of the G major chord - instead, the C from the C major chord is held on for a little longer, and then falls to the B half a beat after the G major chord has sounded. The C is not part of the G major chord, so it is a non-chord note. The C is a suspension.
Retardations are a type of suspension. In the example of a suspension above, the C resolved downwards to B. In a retardation, the non-chord note resolves upwards.
Here the A resolves upwards to B.
A pedal is when either the tonic or dominant note is played continuously, while the chords in the other voices change. Pedals normally occur in the bass, (but it is possible to find them in any of the other voices too). The pedal note is either held on for a long time, or repeated several times. Here's a tonic pedal:
And here's a dominant pedal:
Pedals which happen in the melody line are called "inverted" pedals.
Non-Chord Notes in Action
Let's look again at the Bach extract at the top of this page, and try to work out some of the melodic decorations he used.
Harmonic, unaccented passing note
F natural is part of the scale of G minor, so it's harmonic. It falls on the second quaver, so it's unaccented. It falls between two different chord notes, G and E flat*, so it's a passing note.
Harmonic, accented passing note.
This time the passing note falls on the first quaver of the pair - on the strong beat, so it's an accented passing note.
The D is between the two C sharps, so it's an auxiliary note.
Harmonic, unaccented passing note
F is part of the scale of G minor, so it's harmonic. It falls on the second quaver, so it's unaccented. It falls between two different chord notes, G and E*, so it's a passing note.
*Don't forget that the melodic minor version of the scale uses both E and E flat, and F natural and F sharp, because the note series is different on the way down.