Nonchord tone

A nonchord tone, nonharmonic tone, or non-harmony note is a note in a piece of music which is not a part of the chord that is formed by the other notes sounding at the time. Nonchord tones are most often discussed in the context of music of the common practice period, but can be used in analysis of other types of tonal music as well.

Chord and nonchord tones are defined by their membership in a chord: "The pitches which make up a chord are called chord-tones: any other pitches are called non-chord-tones. They are also defined by the time at which they sound: "Nonharmonic tones are pitches that sound along with a chord but are not chord pitches.".

For example, if a piece of music is currently on a C Major chord, the notes CEG are members of that chord, while any other note played at that time is a nonchord tone. Such tones are most obvious in homophonic music but also often occur in contrapuntal music.

"Most nonharmonic tones are dissonance and create intervals of a second, fourth or seventh," which are required to resolve to a chord tone in conventional ways. If the note fails to resolve until the next change of harmony, it may instead create a seventh chord or extended chord. While it is theoretically possible that for a three-note chord there are (in equal temperament) nine possible nonchord tones, nonchord tones are usually in the prevailing key. Augmented and diminished intervals are also considered dissonant, and all nonharmonic tones are measured from the bass, or lowest note sounding in the chord except in the case of nonharmonic bass tones.

Nonharmonic tones generally occur in a pattern of three pitches, of which the nonharmonic tone is the center:

       1        -         2          -         3
Preceding tone  -  Nonharmonic tone  -  Following tone
 (chord tone)   -                    -   (chord tone)
 Preparation    -     Dissonance     -    Resolution

Nonchord tones are distinguished through how they are used. The most important distinction is whether they occur on a strong or weak beat and are thus accented or unaccented. They are also distinguished by their direction of approach and departure and the voice or voices in which they occur, and the number of notes they contain.

Over time some nonchord tones supposedly became chord tones, such as the seventh in a seventh chord. In European classical music "The greater use of dissonance from period to period as a result of the dialectic of linear/vertical forces led to gradual normalization of ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords[in analysis and theory]; each additional non-chord tone above the foundational triad became frozen into the chordal mass.

The following list is not exhaustive, but identifies the most common types of nonchord tones. The abbreviations found following the names are sometimes used to analyze nonchord tones in scores.



  • An anticipation (ANT) occurs when a note is played before the chord to which the note belongs and resolves when the "anticipated" chord is reached:

Neighbor tone

  • A neighbor tone (NT) or auxiliary note is a nonchord tone that passes from a chord tone directly above or below it and resolves to the same tone:

In practice and analysis, neighboring tones are often differentiated depending upon whether or not they are lower or higher than the chord tones surrounding them. A neighboring tone that is a step higher than the surrounding chord tones is called an upper neighboring tone or an upper auxiliary note while a neighboring tone that is a step lower than the surrounding chord tones is a lower neighboring tone or lower auxiliary note.

Escape tone

  • An escape tone (ET) or echappée is a movement by step in the opposite direction of the harmonic motion in that voice and is resolved by leap in the direction of harmonic motion:

Passing tone

  • A passing tone (PT) or passing note is the nonchord tone of a part which had started at one chord tone and moved up or down through one or more nonchord tones and resolved to another chord tone (possibly of another chord, often of the same chord).


Passing tone

As with above but on an accented beat.

Neighbor tone

As with above but on an accented beat.


  • A suspension (SUS) occurs when the harmony shifts from one chord to another, but one or more notes of the first chord are temporarily held over into the second in which they are nonchord tones before resolving to a chord tone:

Suspensions may be further described using the number of the interval forming the suspension and its resolution; e.g. 4-3 suspension, 7-6 suspension. Most suspensions resolve downwards; the example shown above, a 7-8 suspension, is a rare example of an upwards resolution (also called a retardation). A suspension must be prepared with the same note (in the same voice) using a chord tone in the preceding chord; otherwise it is an appoggiatura.

A suspended chord is an added tone chord with a "suspended" fourth or second as an added tone which doesn't resolve.

Composing a chain of suspensions is the fourth species of counterpoint.


  • The term retardation (RE) is occasionally used for a suspension that resolves upward instead of downward.


  • An appoggiatura (APP) is an accented nonharmonic tone which resolves by step to a harmonic tone on a weaker beat.

Nonharmonic bass

  • Nonharmonic bass notes are bass notes which are not a member of the chord they are written below.

Examples include the Elektra chord.

Involving more than three notes

Changing tones

  • Changing tones (CT) are two successive nonharmonic tones. A chord tone steps to a nonchord tone which skips to another nonchord tone which leads by step to a chord tone, often the same chord tone. They may imply neighboring tones with a missing or implied note in the middle. Also called double neighboring tones or neighbor group.

Pedal point

Another form of nonchord tone is a pedal point or pedal tone (PD) or note, almost always the tonic or dominant, which is held through a series of chord changes. The pedal point is almost always in the lowest voice (the term originates from organ playing), but it may be in an upper voice; then it may be called an inverted pedal. It may also be between the upper and lower voices, in which case it is called an internal pedal.

See also


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