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Victoria Williams

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Harmony Reconstruction Lesson 2: Adding Passing Notes

Grade 7 Music Theory - Adding Passing Notes (Q2 Reconstruction Lesson 2)

Where to Add Passing Notes

A passing note can be added

  • often, between two notes which are a third apart
  • occasionally, between two notes which are a major second apart, as a chromatic passing note
  • to the alto, tenor and bass lines, but only very rarely to the soprano line.

Scan each part, looking for a rising or falling third. (Don’t forget to also look at the notes at the end of the stave compared to the notes starting the next one.)

Here’s an example bar. (There are two falling thirds in the soprano line – but since this forms the melody, we should avoid altering it.)
The tenor part has a falling third between the A and F#. We can fill this gap with a passing note G.

passing-note-opportunity example-passing-note

Sometimes it is possible to fill in the gap between two notes which are a fifth apart, especially if they are minims (half notes). Two passing notes will be needed, and one extra chord note.

Here is an example. The bass line has a rising fifth. We can fill in the gaps with a chord note C (part of the A minor chord), and passing notes B and D:

 passing-notes-fifth-apart passing-notes-fifth-apart-2

Passing notes can be put into two parts at the same time (if you are brave). Together, they should make the harmonic interval of a 3rd or a 6th. 

In this example, both the tenor and bass parts have rising thirds (melodic interval). The added passing notes are a third apart (harmonic interval). This is fine.

tenor-and-bass-place tenor-and-bass-passing-notes 

The alto and tneor also rising thirds here, but the harmonic interval is a sixth. This is ok too.

passing notes in 6ths 2 passing notes in 6ths 2

Type of Passing Note

You will remember that there are two kinds of passing note, the unaccented and the accented. 

  • Unaccented passing notes fall between the chords. They are the most common type of passing note.
  • Accented passing notes fall on the beat, pushing the chord note off the beat. They are less common.

In this case, we could use either an accented or unaccented passing note. 

unaccented-passing-note  accented-passing-note 



Problems to Check for

After adding a passing note, you need to check that you have NOT created:

  • Consecutive perfect 5ths and octaves
  • Clashes caused by accidentals in other parts
  • 3-5 at a perfect cadence
  • Melodic intervals which are augmented or diminished



Here’s an example of a forbidden consecutive caused by a passing note. Notice what happens if we insert an A between the B and the G in the alto part:

consecutive-fifth-passing-note-trap consecutive-fifths-passing-note

Consecutive perfect 5ths have appeared in the soprano and alto parts. This is not allowed.


Here’s an example of a clash. The bass line rises from E to G, giving an opportunity to add a passing note.

If we simply fill in the gap with an accented passing note, we get this:



3 to 5 at a Perfect Cadence

At a perfect cadence, the third of chord V (e.g. B in a G major chord) is often (in the alto or tenor part) followed by the fifth of chord I (G in a C major chord). This creates a melodic gap of a third (B-G), but a passing note usually sounds pretty bad in this position. The B functions as a leading note, and should really “lead” to the tonic C. Bach often let the leading note fall to the dominant instead. If you add a passing note here, the dominant note (G) is emphasised instead of the tonic and the chord sounds odd.

Play the two chords to hear the difference.

3-5-cadence  3-5-cadence-passing-note 



Augmented and Diminished Intervals

In a minor key, take care to avoid augmented or diminished intervals. Raise a passing note by a semitone (half step) when necessary.

Here is an example in A minor. There is an opportunity for a passing note in the alto part.


If we write an F, we create a melodic interval of an augmented second (F-G#). You might like the sound of it yourself, but Bach probably wouldn’t have written it! He would have raised the F up by a semitone to F#. Play both examples to understand the difference.

augmented-second-passing-note  major-secon-passing-note 



Bach did sometimes use a diminished 5th in his part-writing. However, we suggest you play it safe and avoid them.


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