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What are passing notes?

passing notes

Music is a language that speaks to the soul, and just like any language, it has its own set of vocabulary and grammar rules. One such term that often intrigues both seasoned musicians and beginners alike is “passing notes.” But what exactly are passing notes, and why are they so essential in the world of music? Let’s dive in.

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Understanding the basics

A passing note, often referred to as a “non-chord tone” or “non-harmonic tone,” is a musical note that is not part of the main chord but is used to bridge or connect two chord tones. Think of it as a stepping stone that guides the listener from one main note to another, adding depth and flavor to the melody.

For those who are new to the world of music, imagine you’re walking on a path and come across a small stream. Instead of jumping directly to the other side, you use a stepping stone in the middle to ensure a smooth transition. In music, passing notes serve a similar purpose, ensuring a seamless flow between primary notes.


The summary of the video

The presentation commences with a definition of passing notes as melodic elements that, while not part of the chord being played, bridge the gap between chordal notes. An example is provided using a C major chord, where a D note, not inherently part of the C major chord, is used as a passing note between C and E. This illustration effectively shows how passing notes can add depth and complexity to a melody.

A significant focus is on the role of passing notes in enhancing melodic richness. The video contrasts a melody composed solely of chord notes with one that incorporates passing notes. This comparison vividly demonstrates how passing notes can prevent a melody from sounding repetitive and inject a dynamic quality into the piano composition.

Moreover, passing notes are categorized into two distinct types: unaccented and accented. Unaccented passing notes, which appear between beats, subtly embellish the melody. In contrast, accented passing notes, occurring on the beat, provide a more pronounced emphasis, crucial for composers aiming to convey specific emotional nuances or rhythmic emphasis in their music.

Historical significance of passing notes

The concept of passing notes has been around for centuries, tracing its roots back to the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Composers of these eras, such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, frequently employed passing notes to embellish their melodies. These piano notes added a layer of complexity to their compositions, making them sound more intricate and refined.

In classical music, passing notes were often used in fugues and sonatas to create a sense of movement and progression. As music evolved, the use of passing notes became more prevalent in other genres, including jazz, blues, and even pop music. Jazz musicians, in particular, are known for their improvisational skills, often incorporating passing notes to add flair to their solos.

The role of passing notes in music

Passing notes play a pivotal role in adding nuance and sophistication to a piece of music. They can:

  • Enhance melodic movement: By bridging the gap between two chord tones, passing notes create a smoother melodic line, making the tune more pleasing to the ears.
  • Introduce tension and release: The use of a non-chord tone can introduce a momentary tension, which is then resolved when the melody moves to a chord tone. This dynamic creates an emotional ebb and flow in the music, captivating the listener.
  • Add rhythmic variety: Incorporating passing notes can break the monotony of a rhythm, introducing unexpected beats that can make a piece more engaging.

How to identify passing notes

Identifying passing notes can be a bit tricky for beginners, but with practice, it becomes more intuitive. Here are some tips:

  • Listen for notes outside the chord: If a note doesn’t belong to the main chord but lies between two chord tones, it’s likely a passing note.
  • Check the duration: Passing notes are typically shorter in duration compared to the main notes. They’re fleeting, serving as a brief connector.
  • Context matters: Sometimes, a note might sound like a passing note in isolation, but when heard in the context of the entire piece, its role becomes clearer.

The art of using passing notes

While passing notes are a fantastic tool to elevate a piece of music, it’s essential to use them judiciously. Here are some best practices:

  • Don’t overdo it: While passing notes can add richness to a melody, overusing them can make a piece sound cluttered. It’s all about balance.
  • Maintain the flow: Ensure that the passing notes you choose are in harmony with the overall flow of the piece. They should feel natural, not forced.
  • Experiment with different notes: The beauty of music lies in experimentation. Don’t be afraid to try out different passing notes to see which ones resonate best with the melody.

Cultural impact of passing notes

Different cultures have their own interpretations and uses for passing notes. For instance, in Indian classical music, the concept of ‘meend’ or gliding from one note to another can be likened to the use of passing notes. Similarly, in Arabic maqam music, the use of microtones or notes between the standard semitones can be seen as a form of passing note, adding richness and depth to the melody.

In modern times, passing notes are prevalent in genres like rock, R&B, and electronic music. They provide a bridge between traditional and contemporary sounds, making music more accessible and relatable to diverse audiences.

Power of passing notes

Passing notes, though seemingly simple, can profoundly impact a piece of music. They introduce depth, emotion, and sophistication, making melodies more engaging and resonant. As with any musical concept, the key lies in understanding its essence and practicing it regularly. So, the next time you sit down at your piano, guitar, or any other instrument, pay attention to those fleeting notes that bridge the primary tones. They might just be the secret ingredient that takes your music to the next level.

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Author of this blog post:

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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