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Embellishing Tones: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Even technically perfect music can get a little dry at times. In this lesson, we'll look at one way to add a bit of ornamentation to help keep your compositions lively.

Embellishing Tones

Why do we decorate Christmas trees? Apart from the symbolism of various ornaments, the simple fact is that a plain tree is boring. The ornaments make it a little more visually fun.

Music really isn't that different. Many composers throughout history have found that they created compelling melodies, supported by technically perfect harmonies, but that the composition was still missing...something: a bit of flair. So, we have ways to add a little ornamentation. One of these is an embellishing tone, a note added to ornament the harmonic progression of chords. Embellishing tones tend to be outside of the vertical triad of the chord, so they're also called non-chord tones. For example, the triad of a C major chord would be CEG, right? Well, if you played an F, that's a note outside the chord. It's a little something extra that grabs your attention and embellishes the composition. Sometimes music, like trees, just needs a little ornamentation.

Passing Tones

There are many kinds of embellishing tones, so let's start with one of the most common: passing tones. Passing tones are embellishments that occur between two chord triads, moving in a stepwise direction (meaning the passing tone is higher than the first chord, but then lower than the note it resolves into in the second chord).

Passing tones are approached by a step, and resolve by a step in the same direction
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In technical terms, we call this a stepwise motion. A step is an interval of a second (so A to B, for example). So from our first chord, we take one step up or down into the passing tone, and then one more step in the same direction into the next stable chord triad. Most passing tones happen in between two chords (what we call an unaccented tone), but they can also occur as part of the second chord. Since it's on a stronger beat, an embellishing tone that does this can be said to be accented.

Neighboring Tones

A passing tone moves from one note to the next, but what if it returned to the original note? Then that would be a neighboring tone. Neighboring tones begin with a step away from a note, then take a step right back to that same note, all of which happens very quickly. The most common form of neighboring tone is the trill. Imagine plucking the open string of a guitar, pressing down on the first fret very quickly and immediately releasing it back to an open string. As with passing tones, neighboring tones can be accented as well.

Neighboring Tones
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Escape Tones

So far, all our embellishing tones are approached by a step, and resolve with a step. That's not always going to be the case. An escape tone is approached by a step either up or down, but resolves into the second chord with a skip or leap in the opposite direction. These terms can be used interchangeably; they just mean that the embellishing tone moves away from the note in the triad by an interval of a third or more (A to C would be an interval of a third, for example). Escape tones can't be accented, so they have to occur between two chords.

Anticipation

Another way to add a little ornamentation with embellishing tones is with an anticipation. Anticipations are created with notes from the second chord, played in between the two chords. So, imagine that a chord of GBD was moving to CEG. If you played an E in between these chords, that would be an anticipation. It's approached by a step (D to E), but then doesn't need to resolve since the E is a part of the second chord. So, basically, it's just a note that comes early, anticipating the next chord. Since you can't play an anticipation with the second chord, these can't be accented.

Syncopation

Something of a variation on the anticipation is syncopation, a rhythmic device in which a normally strong beat is played on a weak beat. Basically, the goal is to make it feel like the entire beat came early, not just one note. So, syncopation can be created in a similar way to anticipation, by playing a note from the second chord early. The difference is that with anticipation, the note is played again as part of the actual chord; it's clearly a single early note. Syncopation is linked to the second chord with a tie (which is like a slur, but connects two notes of the same pitch). This means that it's not an individual note that arrives early, but a piece of the chord that arrives early.

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