What is a Passing Tone? 6 Examples from Popular Songs

Passing Tone

What is a Passing Tone?

In today’s lesson, we will be discussing passing tones.

But before we do that…

It is important to understand that a passing tone is a type of non-chord tone.

So, What is a Non-Chord Tone?

A non-chord tone is any note in a song which is not part of the current chord progression.

Let’s say you pick up the guitar and start strumming a C-major chord. The notes in a C-major chord are C, E and G.

Now, let’s say you start singing “Doe, a deer, a female deer…” For anyone who is not familiar with The Sound of Music, the notes of this melody are C-D-E-C-E-C-E.

Notice that in the above list of notes, “C” and “E” are in the chord of C-major. The note “D” however, is not.

That means that “D” is a non-chord tone*, since it is not a part of the chord.

*A non-chord tone can also be called a non-harmonic tone. You can also write these terms without the “dash,” i.e. the spelling “nonchord tone” or “nonharmonic tone” are acceptable.

“D” is also a Passing Tone

Also, notice that “C” goes up a step to “D,” which then passes through on it’s way up another step to “E.”

That means that “D” is not just any old non-chord tone, it is a passing tone.

(Side note: When we say the word “step,” we are referring to the interval of a 2nd. Check out my introduction to intervals.)

Passing Tone Sound of Music

The note “D,” circled in yellow, is a passing tone. Notice that it is approached by a step, from “C” to “D.” Then, the melody continues with another step in the same direction, from “D” to “E,” which resolves the melody to a chord tone.

Passing Tones and Why You Should Care

You may be beginning to understand what a passing tone is.

If it’s not 100% clear yet, don’t worry, because next I will be presenting 6 different examples from popular songs. From The Cure, to Beyoncé, to Green Day.

In addition to helping you understand what a passing tone is… we are going to go one step further (for you songwriters!)

Passing tones are important to understand and consider when you are trying to write a good melody.

Other non-chord tones are important as well, but we will be saving those for another lesson… another day.

tempo changeAttention songwriters: As we go through our examples, I will be presenting a few action tips that you can apply to your own songs. That way, you will be armed with the knowledge to use passing tones – and the scales and scale fragments of which they are a part – to help put together a great melody. Even though much of songwriting is intuitive, these action tips can influence you both consciously and subconsciously to assist you in writing better music.

One last quick note about these action tips. I am not pulling these songwriting tips out of the clear blue sky – we are actually learning these lessons together directly from the songs which we are analyzing. That is the quest we are on.

OK, let’s do this!


1. Beyoncé – Single Ladies

Beyoncé – Single Ladies

Listen to Beyoncé sing in this clip. Notice what the writers have accomplished using only three notes.

But – these three notes are not just any three notes, they are a scale fragment. To be specific, Beyoncé is singing the first, second and third scale degree (do, re and mi) of an E-major scale.

Using scale fragments is a powerful way to put together an irresistible melody. Once you start listening for them, you will hear them everywhere.

Here is the basic skeleton of the “Single Ladies” vocal melody in the clip above, using scale degrees:

1-2-3-3
1-2-3-3
1-2-3-2-1

Notice that the scale fragment is used in both an ascending and descending fashion.

So… Where is the Passing Tone?

The passing tone is the second scale degree, the 2 in the diagram above, which is an F-sharp.

Remember that passing tones are a type of non-chord tone.

  • We know that F-sharp is a non-chord tone, because the implied harmony here is just a single chord, E-major. F-sharp is not part of an E-major chord.
  • We know that F-sharp is a passing tone, because, just like in The Sound of Music example above, the F-sharp is approached by a chord-tone which is a step below, and then is resolved to a chord-tone which is a step above*.

*When the scale is descending, the path is reversed and the F-sharp is still a passing tone.

tempo chanageYou can use this technique to write an awesome melody for one of your songs! Try this: Identify what key your song is in, and write down the corresponding scale. Take a fragment from that scale, three or four consecutive notes, and try to write a “Single Ladies” style melody using that fragment. If you are working in a DAW, try looping the section for which you are trying to write a melody, and improvise using your scale fragment. Record your attempts until you land on something inspiring.


2. Goodie Mob – Special Education feat. Janelle Monáe

Goodie Mob – Special Education feat. Janelle Monáe

In the Beyoncé example above, the vocals had three notes – the first, second and third scale degree – do, re and mi.

In this example, we hear the same notes, but this time the fifth scale degree is added. (And, while we’re at it, we changed to a minor key)

In the excerpt above, listen to the synth line. Yes – passing tones and scale fragments are great for writing synth lines as well.

In this song, we are in the key of G-sharp minor. The implied harmony during the first 6 seconds of the above clip is also just a single chord, in this case, G-sharp minor.

The synth line is a simple 1, 2, ♭3, 5. Notice we have the same 2nd scale degree passing tone as we did in the previous example.

Are you starting to hear the passing tone? OK, great. Now, let’s move on to some examples which are a little more complicated…


3. Green Day – Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)

Green Day – Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)

Green Day’s “Time of your Life”…. the ultimate graduation song.

Up until now, our examples have been using a single chord.

So, let’s say good riddance to one chord examples and graduate to a real, multi-chord song.

Time of Your Life

We hear a couple traditional passing tones right off the bat.

The song starts with a G-major chord, which contains the notes G, B and D. Meanwhile, our melody starts of at B, a chord tone, and steps up from C to D, and then back down to B again, via C.

Since C is not a note in a G-major chord, it is a non-chord tone. And since we see our traditional passing structure, it is a passing tone. Take a look at the chart below:

Double Passing Tone

This excerpt from Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of your Life)” contains regular passing tones and a double passing tone.

Next up, our melody lands on C, which happens to now be a chord-tone, because the chord progression in the guitar now moves to C-major. We previously mentioned that a C-major chord contains the notes C, E and G.

Next, notice the melody flows through the notes B and A on it’s way to G. While G is a chord tone, B and A are not. Behold, the double passing tone! Yes, it is possible.

Finally, the melody goes to D, as the guitar plays a D chord.

Do you notice anything interesting going on?

The entire melody excerpted above is simply a winding G-major scale, which never skips a step. In fact, much of the melody of the entire song is written this way. Let’s take this idea and run with it!

tempo changeIn this action tip, let’s take the idea of using passing tones and scale fragments to the next level… Try using a full scale to compose a melody. Similar to our previous action tip, identify what key your song is in, and write out the full corresponding scale. Pick a note to start with, and try writing a melody by winding and following the scale around, never skipping a step – just like we heard in this Green Day song. Notice in the example above that the melody is landing on chord-tones when the chords change, this is good to keep in mind as you compose your melody.


4. The Cure – Just Like Heaven

The Cure – Just Like Heaven

Have a listen to the excerpt above, and listen to the guitar melody. If this doesn’t convince you of the power of using scales to write a melody – nothing will!

The guitar melody is essentially one long descending A-major scale, starting on the third scale degree, and with a couple twists and turns during the second half.

Here is the guitar melody written out in simple scale degrees:

3-2-1
7-6-5
4-4-3-4-3
2-2-1-2
(this loops through twice in the audio embed above)

Side note: During the second half of the melody, there are other types of non-chord tones which are NOT passing tones. It is beyond the scope of today’s article to cover these topics. So, for now, I am going to leave you in suspense. We will come back to this example in a future lesson when we cover other types of non-chord tones.

Over the A-major chord, we hear C-sharp, B and A in the guitar melody. The second scale degree, which is the note B, is a passing tone, just like we saw in the first two examples above.

Over the next chord, which is E-major, we hear the notes G-sharp, F-sharp and E. The passing tone again occurs on the second note in the sequence, which mirrors the structure of the melody during the first chord.

This mirroring/repetition is very pleasing to the ear. In fact, it’s so pleasing, let’s take a look at another example so we can really drive this point home…


5. They Might Be Giants – Istanbul

They Might Be Giants – Istanbul

As we started to see in our previous example – when writing a song, mirroring and repetition are very powerful tools. So, let’s see what John & John, the two folks behind T.M.B.G., have in store for us.

The excerpt above starts off with an F-minor chord. Listen for the notes F, G, A♭, B♭, C (the “Constantinople get the works” in “Why did Constantinople get the works?“). This sequence of five notes contains two passing tones, G and B♭.

What else is special about this sequence of five notes? They are the beginning of an ascending minor scale.

The second chord is C major. Over this chord we hear the second half of the phrase, with the lyrics “That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.”

The note C which completed our previous lyric (the word “works“) continues for the word “that’s,” after which the melody drops down an octave and completes our ascending minor scale. The notes are C, D*, E*, F. The note “D” is a passing tone.

Notice that the writers of this song – John & John – the brilliant songwriters that they are**- used an ascending scale fragment, shifted a few notes downward, then used a second ascending scale fragment to complete the scale created in the first place, mirroring the form along the way. Behold, good songwriting!

*Minor scales are very flexible in terms of what sixth and seventh scale degrees can be used. That is why several different types of minor scales are usually taught in a traditional music theory class, with varying sixth and seventh scale degrees.

**Although John & John are brilliant songwriters, it turns out this song was actually not written by They Might Be Giants. Thanks to Matt C in the comments for pointing this out. See his comment below for additional info.

tempo changeThis is a concept you can use and adapt for your own songs. Try creating a scale fragment as we did in the first action tip. Now, brainstorm a few different ways you can “mirror” or repeat this scale fragment – just like John & John did. Here are a few ideas to get you started: Try repeating it up a step, or down a step, maybe even multiple times! Try repeating the scale fragment up or down a fifth, or an octave. Try moving the scale fragment around to correspond with chord changes.


6. The Beatles – Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds

The Beatles – Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds

And with this final example, I turn it over to you. Take a minute to listen and see if you can identify any passing tones. Let me know in the comments!


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21 Comments

Leave a comment
  • Eric, these posts are great! Simple to follow for my students. I love how you use pop music and focus on one very small musical concept. It is very helpful to the beginning songwriter!

  • FYI –They Might Be Giants did not write Istanbul (Not Constantinople). It was written in 1953 by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon.

    TMBG are pretty awesome and have written some great stuff, just didn’t write that one.

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for pointing this out! I am just a regular guy writing these articles, so I make mistakes and really appreciate that you and others will point out corrections from time to time.

      I should have checked with my sister, who is a serious TMBG fan :-)

      On that note, I have made the correction and credited you. Thanks again!

  • Great look at breaking this down, Eric! Having developed melodies on keyboard for many years, this always seemed rather intuitive to me, but nice to see it broken down.

  • My solution for Lucy in the sky:
    First the bass riff: the notes are G A B C D E D. It starts with a G Major (“Lucy in the sky with”; G B D) and ends with D Major (“Diamonds”; D F-sharp A).
    So the passing tones are A and C. E is also not part of the chord, but I dont know if it’s considered a passing tone…

    The vocals: G F-sharp E D C B A, where the G Major part is on the firs three notes and the D Major part begins with the D in the melody.
    So F-sharp and E are passing notes (G Part) as well as C and B are. The A is part of D Major again.

    I think this should be right, correct me if it’s not.

    Great article by the was – I subscribed to your newsletter :)

    Gregor

    • Gregor-

      Thanks for taking the time to work out the exercise!

      Great work, you are spot on except for one tiny missing piece. There is actually a chord between G and D, and that is C-major. Due to this, the PT’s you identified are adjusted just slightly – in the vocals, the E you identified is now a chord tone, whereas the F-sharp is now a passing tone. You can work out the bass in the same way.

      Lastly, you asked about the E in the bass. I would call this a chord tone because it is occurring during the C-chord which is just before the D-chord. Since the notes for the C-chord are C-E-G, the E is a chord tone.

      I believe all of that is correct. Thanks again for doing the exercise, it is a great way to add to the learning process beyond just reading the article.

  • Love the structure of the article. It helped me to zero in on the important stuff. It is also interesting to use the piano roll as it is a very visual, effective way to show what passing tones are.

    Thanks,
    Tyler

    • Thanks for the feedback Tyler,

      Glad you like the structure of the article. I have heard a lot of positive feedback about using the piano roll, so I am continuing on with that.

      That goes to anyone else reading this right now: I love feedback, so please don’t hold back! :-)

  • Totally agree with the usefulness!

    What I’m enjoying about this is I can hear imagine the sound of the piano roll stuff while on a train with no instrument. That’s down to your really simple way of explaining it including do-re-mi. Sounds obvious, but if all music articles did this, there would be a lot less mystique about ostinato and passing tones!! Lol.

    Great work.

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