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A5. Melodic Decoration

Grade Six Music Theory - Harmony Lesson 5: Melodic Decoration

 

What is Melodic Decoration?

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 voice parts; S, A, T or B.

Notes which form part of the melodic decoration are also sometimes 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 - with one chord per beat.

 

bare bones chords         

 

Bach added some melodic decoration to this harmonisation, making it a lot more interesting. Can you spot all the differences?

Bach chorale with melodic decoration

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:

  • Passing notes (accented, unaccented, chromatic)
  • Auxiliary notes (upper, lower, chromatic)
  • Changing notes
  • Anticipations
  • Suspensions
  • Retardations
  • Pedals (tonic & dominant)

 

 

1. Passing Notes

Passing notes can be diatonic or chromatic.

Diatonic passing notes are notes that occur in the key of the piece.

diatonic passing note falls in between two different notes a third apart. For example, the soprano notes C and E below are a third apart. The D (marked *) falls between them, so it is a passing note.

unaccented harmonic passing note

 

Chromatic passing notes have an accidental added, because they don't occur within in the key of the piece. The occur between two notes which are a tone (whole step) apart. 

For example, this passing note is C# - it falls between the two chord notes C and D.

chromatic passing note

 

These passing notes we've just seen are unaccented, because they fall on an off-beat (between two chords).

Passing notes which fall on the beat are called accented passing notes.

Compare the following with the first example - this time the D is sounded on the beat - at the same time as the second chord. This time it's an accented passing note. An accented passing note forms a dissonance (“clash”) with the rest of the chord, because the passing note is foreign to the chord.

accented passing note

 

►When you describe a passing note, always say whether it is accented or unaccented. If it is chromatic say so. If it is diatonic, you do not need to write this in the exam.

 

 

2. Auxiliary Notes (also called "Neighbour Notes")

An auxiliary note falls between two identical chord notes. It can be higher or lower than the chord note. An auxiliary note which is higher than the chord note is an "upper auxiliary note" and a "lower auxiliary note" is lower than the chord note.

Auxiliary notes which are outside of the current key are chromatic auxiliary notes.

Here is an upper auxiliary note:

auxiliary-note

 

 ►When you describe an auxiliary note, always say whether it is upper or lower. If it is chromatic say so. If it is diatonic, you do not need to write this in the exam.

 

 

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:

cambiata

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:

echappee

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).

 

In the exam, both types are normally referred to as simply “changing notes”, rather than by their specific names.

 

4. Anticipations

An anticipation happens when we write one chord note earlier than the rest of the chord - 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. Anticipations are usually approached by a downwards motion (e.g the C falls to B).

anticipation

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.

 

 

5. Suspensions

Suspensions are the opposite of anticipations.

A suspension happens when we write one chord note later than the rest of the chord - 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.

Suspension

6. Retardations

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.

Retardation

Here the A resolves upwards to B.

 

7. Pedals

A pedal is either the tonic or dominant note played in one part 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:

Tonic Pedal

And here's a dominant pedal:

Dominant pedal

 

Pedals which are not in the bass part 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.

Bach's melodic decorations

 

  Note Type Reason
1. F natural Unaccented passing note F natural is part of the scale of G minor (melodic), so it's diatonic (not chromatic). It falls on the off beat, so it's unaccented. It falls between two different chord notes, G and E flat*, so it's a passing note.
2. D " " The passing note D falls between Eb and C, on an off-beat.
3. C Accented passing note. This time the passing note falls on the beat, so it's an accented passing note.
4. D Upper auxiliary note The D is between the two C sharps, so it's an upper auxiliary note.
5. F Unaccented passing note It falls off the beat, so it's unaccented. It falls between two different notes a third apart, 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.

 

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