Passing chords

We have 2 notes apart from each other (larger than a half-step), and we are moving from one note to another.

Let's (arbitrarily) assume we are ascending, and (for simplicity's sake) that the 2nd note is a whole-step higher than the 1st.

Now, we could go directly from the first to the 2nd note, or we could go somewhere inbetween the two notes on the way from the first to the 2nd.


|         |           |
|  O      |  O #O     |
|         |           |
|         |           |

the latter shows a "passing note," that is, a note played in passing from one note to another note. (a more formal definition would have the two notes be chordal tones of adjacent chords, and the passing tone being non-chordal, but we'll stick with the simpler broader definition for now).

We can expand our example to study more deeply this idea of a passing note:
1.) The notes could descend rather than ascend.
2.) the interval between the two notes can be larger than a whole-step (but not smaller).
3.) There could be multiple passing notes.
4.) The movement doesn't have to be strictly linear, it could be more angular.

Consider the 4th of the possibilities:
Suppose, your 2 notes ascend by a 4th, we are in a major scale, the 1st note is the root and the 2nd note is the p4 (in the key of C: C to F). We could go directly from C to F (1), go linearly from C to F playing one passing note (2), go linearly from C to Fplaying more than one passing note (3), change directions on the way from C to F (4), or overshoot F and fall back into it (5).

(1)       (2)         (3)            (4)
|         |           |              |               |               |
|  O      |  O        |  O #O        |  O    #O      |  O            |
|         |           |              |               |               |
|         |           |              |               |               |

(5)      bO
|               |
|  O            |
|               |
|               |

The last example shows an "approach note." an approach note is one that is a half-step away and by tension draws the ear to the intended target note. Consider the following ii-V-I wher the passing notes are approach notes:

 Gmaj7  Am7   D9    Gmaj7

Moning onto passing chords, ...

In a major key/ major scale system we have as triads
I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio-I, and seventh chords:

(We'll stick with the major scale and it's chords for simplicity). We'll call any of these chords diatonic, since they all come out of the scale. We can create progressions (diatonically) such as I-ii-iii-IV, ii-V-I, I-IV-V, etc. (in C, these would be C-Dm-Em-F, Dm-G-C, C-F-G, etc.)

The progressions we create don't have to be diatonic. We could create parallel progressions (progressions from parallel chords created by parallel movement), such as I-II-III, i-II-bIII, I-II-III-IV, I-VII-bVII, etc. using any chord type we wished i7-#i7-ii7, io-viio-bviio-vio, etc.

Back to diatonic progressions and passing chords between them.
One common use of passing chords is to chromatically move the bass note (root note) between the chords while keeping the 1st chord static, then moving the rest to the next chord.


* note: raising the root of a maj7 chord by a half-step creates a m7b5 chord, raising the root of a 7 chord by a half-step creates a o7 chord.

In some situations we can use a parallel approach, this works well btween the ii7 and iii7 chords (i7and ii7 in Dorian)


Pretty much any chord between the two chords can be used. the only prohibition would be using a chord that destroys the original progression.

As an example, we have the harmonized major scale: I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio-I, this leaves 5 notes of the chromatic scale unharmonized. From the minor scale i could borrow bIII,bVI,bVII. From the phrygian I could borrow bII, and from the Lydian I could borrow #iv7b5.

Starting with a progression I-ii-iii-IV, I fill in all the chromatic notes:
I-bII-ii-bIII-iii-IV. Now based on the rhythm this can work or not work. having an even rhythm on every chord will work at destroying the original progression.

Have fun adding passing chords to increase tension and release.

Next lesson is on the Major Eleventh chord.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Last updated July 10, 2003
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