Unit 6 Overview: Harmony and Voice Leading III (Embellishments, Motives, and Melodic Devices)

11 min read‱january 30, 2023

Sumi Vora

Sumi Vora

AP Music TheoryÂ đŸŽ¶

72 resources
See Units

6.1: Embellishing Tones: Identifying Passing Tones and Neighbor Tones

In order to add expression and make the individual lines of music more complex, composers often add additional notes, ornaments, or figures added to a melody to enhance its expression and interest. These embellishments are used to add complexity and interest to a melody. They can also be used to add a sense of ornamentation or decoration to a melody. These embellishments can be diatonic or chromatic, meaning they come from within the key or scale being used, or they can come from outside of it.  We often call these notes non-chord tones, meaning that they are notes played that don’t belong to any of the harmonies in the music. 

Passing Tones

A passing tone in music is a non-chord tone that is played or sung briefly as a transition between two chord tones in a melody or harmony. It is typically used to create a sense of movement or tension and release in a piece of music. They are used to connect or "pass" between the strong and stable tones of a chord, adding a sense of motion and flow to the music. If there are skips or leaps between successive chords in a harmonic progression, adding a passing tone or multiple passing tones can also help to improve voice leading and ensure that voices are mostly moving in a stepwise manner. 
Usually, passing tones, as well as almost all other embellishments, should be written on the weaker beats. However, we can classify passing tones as accented or unaccented. An unaccented passing tone is written on a weaker beat in comparison to the chord tones surrounding it. An accented passing tone is written on a stronger beat than the chord tones surrounding it. As you can see, writing an accented passing tone requires disrupting the harmonic rhythm of the piece, which can be done in order to create tension and rhythmic interest, but was usually done sparingly by composers in the Common Practice Era. 
Here is an example:

Neighbor Tones

A neighbor tone in music is a non-chord tone that is played or sung immediately before or after a chord tone within a melody or harmony. Neighbor tones are used when a chord tone is sustained from one chord to another, meaning that the note in the voice stays the same for both chords. In this case, adding a neighbor tone means adding a note above or below the sustained note. For example, if there is a C in the soprano voice that is sustained for two chords, you can step down such that you have a C-B-C melody in the soprano voice. 
A neighbor tone is similar to a passing tone in that it is used to create a sense of movement or tension and release in a piece of music, but it typically stays within a smaller range and returns to the same chord tone it started from. Neighbor tones are often used to create a sense of ornamentation or decoration in a melody and can be used to create a sense of anticipation or delay in the resolution of a chord.
There are two types of neighbor tones: upper neighbor and lower neighbor. An upper neighbor tone occurs when a note is approached by a note of a higher pitch and then returns to the original note. A lower neighbor tone is when a note is approached by a note of a lower pitch and then returns to the original note.
Let's look at an example:

6.2: Embellishing Tones: Writing Passing Tones and Neighbor Tones

In 18th-century style Western music, it is common to write passing and neighbor tones in one of the outer voices – typically the soprano line, but sometimes also the bass line. If you write passing or neighbor tones in the soprano line, you have significant freedom regarding where to place these tones and, sometimes, regarding whether they are accented or unaccented. By convention, though, both passing and neighbor tones in the soprano line are written as unaccented non chord tones. 
When writing non chord tones in the bass line, you should usually accompany them with a stationary soprano line, meaning that both the soprano lines and bass lines should not be moving at the same time. If all of the chords occur on a quarter note, for example, then it would be appropriate to insert a passing tone or a neighbor tone on the eighth note, such that the non chord tone occurs on a weak beat, and the chord tones both occur on the beat or the harmonic rhythm. Similarly, if the chords progress by half note, you can add a quarter note as a passing or neighbor tone, or perhaps three eighth notes as passing tones between the lines.
Another consideration when adding non chord tones to the bass line is voice exchange, in which the bass line swaps notes with the soprano line. For example, if the bass line moves up stepwise G-A-B, where A is a passing tone, and the soprano voice moves down by leap from B to G, this would be voice exchange between the soprano and bass lines. If you can achieve this in your music, adding non-chord tones in the bass line between the exchanged voices sounds really beautiful. 
This is what a voice exchange might look like:
If the bass line moves in parallel thirds or sixths with the soprano line, then it might be a good idea to add some non-chord tones in the bass line to add tension to the parallel consonant intervals.

6.3: Embellishing Tones: Identifying Anticipations, Escape Tones, Appoggiaturas, and Pedal Points

Anticipation Tones

Anticipation tones are chord tones that come a little bit before a change in harmony. For example, if you are moving from a V-I in a perfect authentic cadence, you might introduce the tonic in the soprano line an eighth note before the harmonic beat, when the rest of the chord tones come in. 
Because anticipation tones occur before the harmonic beat by definition, they are necessarily unaccented non-chord tones. This is one way in which they differ from suspensions, which we will learn in Unit 6.4. 
This is what an anticipation tone looks like:

Escape Tones 

Escape tones are like incomplete neighbor tones: you will move stepwise from the chord tone preceding it, but you will move by skip or leap (usually in the opposite direction of the escape tone) to the resolution of this non-chord tone. 
Escape tones can be classified into two categories: upper and lower. Upper escape tones occur when the escape tone moves up stepwise following the chord tone in the preparation, while lower escape tones occur when the escape tone moves down stepwise following the chord tone in the preparation.
It is considered bad voice leading to resolve an escape tone in the same direction of the non-chord tone. In other words, you should resolve an upper escape tone with a skip or leap downwards, and a lower escape tone with a skip or leap upwards. This is generally a good rule to follow when writing non-chord tones that don’t resolve stepwise. 


Appoggiaturas, also known as grace notes, are a type of non-chord tone that are used to add dissonance and tension to a melody. They are typically played just before a chord tone and are often used to create a sense of movement and resolution. Appoggiaturas are a common feature in both classical and popular music, and can be played on any instrument.
The appoggiatura is the tiny note at the beginning of the second bar.
Appoggiaturas are a type of ornamentation in music. Ornamentation is the use of appoggiaturas, trills, and other grace notes to add interest and variety to a melody. Ornamentation can be used to create a sense of dissonance and tension, and can be used to create a sense of movement and resolution.

Pedal Points

Pedal points, also known as pedal tones, are a type of prolonged note or chord that is held under a changing harmony. They are typically played on a lower-pitched instrument, such as a bass guitar, piano or organ and are often used to create a sense of tension and dissonance. Pedal points are a common feature in both classical and popular music, and can be played on any instrument.
Here's an example:
In classical music, pedal points are often used in fugues, where a single note or chord is held throughout the piece as a background for the main theme. It creates a sense of continuity and stability and serves as a foundation for the complex counterpoint of the fugue. 

6.4: Embellishing Tones: Identifying and Writing Suspensions; Identifying Retardations

A suspension is when a chord tone from the previous chord is retained until the downbeat of the next chord, and it resolves by step to a chord tone on an unaccented beat. Usually, when we refer to suspensions, the suspended note is resolving down by step. If the suspended note is resolving upwards, we call that a retardation. 
When writing suspensions using 18th-century-style music conventions, it is a good idea to avoid putting dissonant intervals in adjacent voices. In the example, we have the G in the tenor and the F in the soprano. If, somehow, the G was in the alto, the chord would not sound good. Luckily, it is hard to put dissonant intervals in adjacent voices when writing suspensions because we should be maintaining proper spaces between the voices. However, this voice leading rule is something to watch out for. 
9-8 suspensions are quite common, along with 4-3 suspensions. 7-6 suspensions are sometimes common, as they can be used in a iii-vi progression in Major when the iii and vi are used to prolong the tonic, or a V-i6 progression in minor, when the 3rd of the V is suspended and resolves down to the tonic. 
4-3 suspensions are usually used in cadences – especially V7-I cadences, where the chordal seventh of the V7 chord, which is the fourth scale degree, is suspended before resolving down to the 3rd of the I chord. 

6.5: Motive and Motivic Transformation

Just like in literature, a motive in music theory, also known as a motif, is a short musical phrase or idea that is used as the basis for a larger composition. A motive is typically made up of a few notes and is repeated or varied throughout a piece of music. It can be the main theme of the piece, a subsidiary theme, or a recurring element that is used to unify the different sections of a composition.
In music theory, a motive is considered a building block of a larger composition, serving as the foundation for the development of themes, harmonies, and rhythms. It is a way for a composer to create coherence and unity in a piece by using a small, recognizable idea as a starting point for more complex musical structures. Motives are usually characterized by pitch, contour, or rhythm, meaning that if any of these qualities of a short musical passage are repeated throughout a piece of music, we might consider it a motive. 
In order to add variety in the melody of a musical piece while still remaining cohesive and emphasizing musical ideas, motives are usually transformed and varied throughout a piece. There are a few common ways to transform motives: 
  • Transposed motives: when the motive appears on a different scale degree 
  • Inverted motives: reversing the direction of each diatonic interval in a motive 
  • Extended motives: repeating a portion of the motive to make it longer 
  • Truncated motives: cutting of the end of the motive to make it shorter 
  • Fragmented motives: taking a small but recognizable piece of music in the motive and repeating with with transpositions or other variations 

6.6: Melodic Sequences

Melodic sequences occur when a musical idea is expressed, then repeated one or more times, usually at different pitch levels. Here is an example:
Melodic sequences have two primary functions in music: prolonging the tonic area and signaling motion to another key. 
When using melodic sequences to prolong the tonic area, which is the musical key or center of the piece, composers proceed by repeating a specific pattern of notes that are primarily found in the tonic key. For example, if we are in Ab Major, we might write an ascending melodic sequence by thirds, starting on Ab, then on C, and then on Eb. This creates a sense of stability and repose in the music and can help to establish the tonic key as the center of the piece.
One way to use melodic sequences to modulate to a different key is to start with a sequence in the tonic key and gradually introduce notes from the target key. This can create a sense of tension and release as the listener anticipates the modulation. Once the target key is established, the sequence can be repeated in the new key, creating a sense of continuity and stability.

6.7: Harmonic Sequences

Just like melodic sequences, harmonic sequences occur when a segment of chords is followed by the same progression of chords transposed up or down by some interval. For example, we may start with a I-V progression in Major, and then transpose this pattern of chords down a second, we end up with a viio-ii progression. Usually, the relative motion of the chords and the voice leading of the chords is also preserved. 
Here’s an example of a harmonic sequence: 
Depending on whether the harmonic progression is ascending, descending, or neither, we can characterize it as monte, fonte, or ponte. 
  • Monte, meaning mountain in Italian, means that the harmonies are ascending in a harmonic sequence
  • Fonte, meaning fountain or well in Italian, occurs when harmonies are descending in a harmonic sequence
  • Ponte sequences, which is Italian for bridge, is a delay of a harmonic sequence, where the harmonic progression is neither ascending or descending
In linear intervallic pattern sequences, only the interval between the outer voices forms a pattern. For example, if the interval between the outer voices alternates between a tenth and sixth, we call it a 10-6 linear intervallic pattern (LIP for short). The most common linear intervallic patterns are 10-10, 10-6, and 10-5 LIPs. 

Types of Harmonic Sequences

Descending fifths progressions outline the circle of fifths, and usually consist of two fifth-related harmonies that make up each pattern. Then, this pattern descends by a second, e.g. I-V-viio-ii in Major. Descending fifth sequences can include all seventh chords, alternating triads and seventh chords, or alternating different inversions of seventh chords. 
Ascending fifth sequences follow the same rules as descending fifths sequences, but the pattern is transposed UP a second (e.g. iii-vii-IV-I) 
We usually see descending thirds sequences in the predominant area, e.g. (vi-IV-ii), or moving from the predominant to the dominant (ii-viio6). Ascending thirds sequences are also possible, but far less common than descending thirds. Usually, descending and ascending thirds sequences don’t use seventh chords. 
Ascending 2nds are commonly seen in tonic to predominant movement, e.g. I-ii, predominant to dominant movement, e.g. IV-V, and dominant to tonic movement, e.g. viio-I. We also see these in deceptive cadences that move from the dominant to submediant (V-vi). 
Parallel 6/5 chord sequences often ascend or descend by step. When writing these sequences, the LIP will be 6-6, which lacks melodic interest, so many composers will add a chain of suspensions or retardations in this sequence. This usually creates 7-6 suspensions when descending, or 5-6 retardations when ascending. 
Pachelbel sequences follow the root progression of a descending fourth followed by an ascending 2nd. These are named after the famous Pachelbel Canon in D, which has root progression D-A-b-f#-G-D-G-A, i.e. I-V-vi-ii-IV-I-IV-V. When writing Pachelbel sequences, you can use all root position chords, or you can alternate between root position and first inversion chords to have a descending 2nd bass line. 
Browse Study Guides By Unit
đŸŽ”Unit 1 – Music Fundamentals I (Pitch, Major Scales and Key Signatures, Rhythm, Meter, and Expressive Elements)
đŸŽ¶Unit 2 – Music Fundamentals II (Minor Scales and Key Signatures, Melody, Timbre, and Texture)
đŸŽ»Unit 3 – Music Fundamentals III (Triads and Seventh Chords)
đŸŽčUnit 4 – Harmony and Voice Leading I (Chord Function, Cadence, and Phrase)
🎾Unit 5: Harmony and Voice Leading II: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function
đŸŽșUnit 6 – Harmony and Voice Leading III (Embellishments, Motives, and Melodic Devices)
đŸŽ€Unit 7 – Harmony and Voice Leading IV (Secondary Function)
đŸŽ·Unit 8 – Modes & Form
🧐Exam Skills
📚Study Tools

Stay Connected

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.