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Chord Notes and Non-Chord Notes

When we want to know which chords are being used in a piece of music, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between chord notes and non-chord notes in the score, so that you know which notes the chords of built from.

In Baroque and Classical era music this is usually a relatively straightforward task, but as harmony evolves through the Romantic period and later, it can become increasingly difficult to decipher chords, often because decoration notes, particularly chromatic ones, can hide what’s underneath.

In this lesson we will look at some strategies for analysing harmony, starting with the basics.

This piece is in F major. This piece is simple to analyse, because there are no non-chord notes.

Gurlitt op.101

(Gurlitt op.101 no.12)

The first beat of bar 1 contains the notes F and A, so we analyse this as a tonic chord I. It’s in root position because the lowest sounding note is F, the root of the chord.

On beat 2, the bass note changes to E and the melody note is C. These notes belong to chord V, C major, in first inversion.

Bar 2 is the same as bar 1, so the chord progression so far is Ia-Vb-Ia-Vb. This is a very typical chord progression – we know that the dominant chord normally moves to chord I, so these chords are “behaving themselves”!

You may be thinking that an alternative analysis could be, for example Dm-Am-Dm-Am (vib-iiic-vib-iiic). While all the notes in the music fit these chords, we know they are not the correct chords for a number of reasons.

  • vib would be missing its root (D). Roots are normally the most important note to include in a chord.
  • iiic is a second inversion chord, but this isn’t a valid place for a second inversion chord. It is also missing its root (A).
  • This is the beginning of the music; we would expect to find the tonic and dominant chords here, so that the key can be established clearly.
  • Where there is any ambiguity about a chord, it is the primary chord (I, V or IV) that the ear/brain will expect.

The next example includes unaccented non-chord notes (marked *). The non-chord notes are either auxiliary notes or passing notes.

unaccented passing notes

Gurlitt op.101 no.8

This piece continues like this:


Bar 5: On beat 2 we can see that D+F=Dm (ii) and that G (rh) is an auxiliary note. This leaves the C (lh) unaccounted for. Is this a chord note (in ii7) or non-chord note? Look at the evidence for both:

  • Chord note? If C is a chord note in Dm7, it will need to fall to B in the following chord (see Voice Leading), but it does not.
  • Non-chord note? If C is a non-chord note, it would be a pedal. It is repeated for quite a while, and it is on the tonic note, so it is indeed a pedal.

Bar 6: On beat 1, the second inversion chord is allowed here because the chord is a pedal 6/4.

Bar 6: On beat 2, D+F are not part of Dm here, but actually belong to V7. Why?

  • The rhythmic structure of the melody shows us that this is a cadence, so this unlikely to be chord iib.

(Arguably, bar 5 beat 2 could have been labelled as V7c, but because the two most emphasised notes here are D and F and it is not at a cadence, it will sound more like chord ii.)

Bar 6: The final lh note C is also pedal.

In our analyses so far, we have needed to look at:

  • Voice-leading
  • Progressions
  • Inversions
  • Cadences
  • Structure

to determine what each chord is.

As we move on to more complex or more chromatic music, we will need to keep these same considerations in mind.

This example is from Gurlitt’s Op.224 no.3. The opening key is Bb major.

Gurlitt op.224

Bar 5: The unharmonised Bb (rh) would imply chord I.

Bar 5 beat 2: The notes D+Eb+F do not all belong to one chord. At least one of these must be a non-chord note. Look at bar 6 to see what the next chord is. It is Bb major (I) (D+F+Bb). The most likely chord to precede this is chord V. This means Eb and F are chord notes (in V7), and D is extra. Check that D resolves by step (it does, to C, which is a chord note in V7). The D is accented, approached by a leap and resolves by step, so it is an appoggiatura.

Bar 7: C+F+A looks like a second inversion chord, so check if a second inversion is allowed here (check what happens next). The following chord is C7, which would imply a modulation to F major, so bar 7 would be Ic-Va in F major – this is fine. Vc=Ic as a pivot chord.

Bar 9: The Eb suggests we have moved back to the home key of Bb major. C+Eb (rh) could be either iib or part of V7. However, the F (lh) is also part of this chord, although it sounds later, so the chord is V7 (not ii).

On beat 2, the Gb is a not part of the current key. Check if it is a chromatic note (no key change) or a modulation note.

  • In a modulation we expect to find V(7) in the new key. The nearest key with Gb in it is Db major (5 flats), so we would expect to see a Db to confirm this. There is no Db.
  • Gb can occur as a chromatic note in vii°7 (A-C-Eb-Gb). This chord is quite similar in function to V7. V7 and vii°7 sound almost like the same chord (the only change is that F moves up a semitone to Gb).