What we get is a very different sound, without changing the melody at all.
It is observably true that minor key tunes tend to be sadder. What is
not clear is whether it is fundamental to the mode. It is obviously
psychological, but whether that is hard-wired (neurological) or just a
product of Pavlovian co-location is presently anyone's guess. Similarly,
why do we assume that the monster is right around the corner when we
hear diminished chords? Either way, it is part of Western culture, so if
you are a composer, you need to be aware.
There are a number of web sites in ether-space that illustrate how we
can make a sad song happy or the reverse by changing the mode to
minor.11 We get some of this by simply changing the chords as
we just did. But it is possible to go another step by changing the key
signature, moving it into its parallel minor (we have to minorize the
chords too, but otherwise we will keep them the same as the major
We may have to change the title to "Just Worry, Be Miserable," though.
We can, however, mangle it still further. Since we tried putting minor
chords on top of the major-key melody, let's do the reverse and put
major chords on this minor-key version (it doesn't resolve right, so I
had to add a couple of chords at the end):
There is a conservative current in country/western music that objects to
minor chords. They are not offended by the fact that Mendelssohn and
Brahms fond them useful, but they regard them as adulterations in the
'pure' country/western sound.
To my ears, this is not so happy sounding, but not so sad either. It
feels more solemn; maybe you'll respond differently. There are no fixed
rules in this stuff, but you can use these sorts of methods to add
variety to your tunes and arrangements. By the way, McFerrin doesn't use
any of these chord arrangements. His is like the major-key version,
except that where I have G, he uses Dm. Usually,
it is a good idea to mix your majors and minors, as he does, rather than
being stuck with only three chords.12
By this I mean notes with the same letter names. In the example,
D major (2 sharps) contains a c♯ and an
f♯; in the parallel D minor the
c♯ and the f♯ would be
f♮, and the b would go to
b♭. See below for an example using McFerrin's "Don't
Worry; Be Happy."
Thomas Yorke, Edward O'Brien, Colin Greenwood, Jonathan Greenwood,
Philip Selway, Albert Hammond & Mike Hazelwood.
A common technique in classical music is to restate the same theme in
the parallel or relative major or minor. A parallel mode is a different
mode that has the same root. A composer might write a melody in
D major and then represent it (e.g. the same note
classes13) in D minor. It is quite common to shift
from the minor to the major this way, but the reverse is frequent enough
as well. This allows her all the advantages of repetition, but keeps the
second phrase noticeably different. You may see this in popular music
sometimes, but the only example I could think of is in the second two
phrases of Radiohead's "Creep",
although in that case only the background chord changes a,
g, and f are common to both keys (C &
The two phrases are essentially the same (except for the final note);
only the background chord is different here. The parallel minor is
possible only because the notes common to both do not include mode
specific notes (only a, g, & f) which
work in both C major and C melodic minor).
The G to Gm; the C to Cm
changes the underlying chords, but the tune goes its own way (although
within the Cm scale).
Here is an example (my own) of the tune mode-shifting along with the
supporting chords.15 Also, note that I have actually changed
the key signature each time. This is to make the mode change more
obvious; usually such a short shift would simply be handled with in-line
It is feasible, obviously, to do the same with other modes. Particularly
as a brief excursion, this can be quite interesting.
If you are covering a song, and don't want to sound like you
are trying to just ape the original artist, playing with the
chords is a good way to accomplish this. Of course, if all you
do is change a few chords, folks may think you simply couldn't figure out
the "right" ones (or you found them on some internet site).
Who's got the tune?
Most songs put the melody in the dominant voice. In popular music,
finding it is rarely a problem, being ultimately decided by the
character who controls the volume on the final mix, but it can be
tricky. If one voice is moving and the others are static, the moving one
is probably the melody. If it is a duet in counterpoint, there is very
likely supposed to be more than one tune. If a refrain is repeating, and
someone starts singing (or playing) something on top of it, it is
probable that that secondary tune is what you are supposed to focus on.
An instrumental lead can be the 'melody' if it is melodic, but if the
player is just showing off how fast it is possible to play, the effect
is more like ambience.
Nevertheless, we tend to hear melody best when it falls within an
analogous range. It was popular, particularly in the baroque period to
take advantage of this psychological feature. In this (modern) baroque
example, the melody is actually in the bass, since the high voices,
while not static, are not really doing anything but establishing the
If we were going to pick a melody, though, it would be the bass. In fact,
your ear gets a little confused about the A at the beginning of the
fourth measure because, while it has come to expect a bass note, it is
in the same range as the following treble notes.
We have mentioned these sorts of notes on several occasions. They can,
of course, take any form a composer desires, but there are some types
that occur frequently enough in tonal music that they have names. So at
this stage we are going to talk about those categories and how they
Unless you are using this to help study for an academic class in
music theory, however, I do not think there is any value in memorizing
the names of these forms. It is worth going through this information and
listening to the examples. Many of these are cool ideas that you can
incorporate into your own writing but remembering the categories is
probably a waste of time. The exception might be the section on
suspensions, simply because it is worth understanding the difference
between suspensions as a type of voice/chord movement and suspensions as
a category of chord types.
We have already talked about passing tones, so that is a good
place to start. They are also probably the most common. These occur when
the melody is moving step-wise in one direction and passes from one
chord tone to another with a non-chord tone in the middle. Here are some
The passing tones are marked with the arrows. Note that it doesn't
matter which way the melody is going, or what the musical context is
outside of the three notes that make up the form. The passing tone is
the middle of those three notes (double p.t. = middle two of
four). The third example illustrates that this does not have to all
happen within a single chord. The a is a chord tone in
Am, and the c is a chord tone in F. The
b is not part of either (although it is only essential that
it not be part of the Am). The fourth example is called an
accented passing tone because the p.t. is on the beat with the
Also called just neighbor groups, and changing tones.
A neighboring tone is also part of a three note step-wise
sequence. The difference is simply that the two outer notes are the same
(as each other) and the middle (non-harmonic) note is one step either up
or down from them. Double neighbor groups16 combine
the upper and lower neighbors, hitting the one and then the other
(either order) before returning to the starting note. Here are some
Note that, as in the second and last examples, it is possible (but never
required) to change chords on the last note.
These, and most of the remaining non-harmonic tones, assume a chord
change, either right after (unaccented) or right on (accented) the
Anticipation occurs when the melody (not necessarily the
dominant 'tune') moves to a non-chord tone of the current chord which is
a chord tone of the next chord, and then repeats or holds through the
chord change. In doing so it anticipates the coming chord tone.
Traditionally, the initial movement is step-wise, although in modern
usage this rule is not treated as firm. It is always unaccented, which
should be reasonably obvious if you think about it.
Suspension and retardation are similar to
anticipation, except in reverse. Where anticipation leads with a note
from the next chord, both of these hang on to a note from the previous
chord. They are both accented, and both traditionally resolve step-wise.
The difference between suspension and retardation is that the former
resolves downward, and the latter resolves upward. Here are some
While most in this group resolve to the third of the target chord, they
can, and do, resolve to any note in the target. In this example, the
first suspends a second resolving to the tonic, and the second suspends
a fourth resolving to the fifth. The third resolves from suspended
fourth to third, but it has some other interesting features. The passing
tones in the F♯7 should not be surprising, but then the
resolve takes the form of a neighboring tone construction. This last
feature is one of the most common ways of resolving a suspended fourth.
Note that when a note is suspended or retarded, the natural note in the
chord is withheld until resolution. The following illustration should
make this clear.
The second one just doesn't sound quite right—not disastrous, just
a little off. When these are properly constructed, the missing notes are
as much part of the tension created as the non-harmonic tone.
While suspensions are a clear enough feature of voice/chord movement,
the term in popular music usually refers to a chord with an altered
third. If the 3 of the chord is replaced with a 4, the
chord is called X, or often just X
(because it is the older, and still most common form of suspension). If
it is replaced with a 2, it is referred to as
X. Voice movement is inconsequential, and the chords
often enough do not resolve at all. This terminology is clearly derived
from the voice movement category, but it is different enough to deserve
mention. Variations in terminology on these chords were discussed in the
section on Expanded Chords.
Appoggiatura is the fancy Italian name (='support') for a jump
(disjunct motion) to an accented non-harmonic tone which then resolves
step-wise in the opposite direction. They can be either upward or
downward, but the reverse in direction is an essential part of the form.
The escape tone is the exact inverse. It is unaccented, begins
with step-wise movement to a non-chord tone, and then jumps to
resolution on the next chord. Like the appoggiatura, the two steps in
this construction move in the opposite direction.
The other major components of melody are rhythm and rest, both of which
are about timing. Rest is simply the silence between notes. Frequently,
they just divide phrases, but they can also be used as an integral
component of a melody's rhythmic feel. Consider the following well-known
melody. Give it a listen, and identify it.
Not the title you expected? Today is just full of surprises! "Happy
Birthday" is the most recognizable song in the English speaking world,
according to Guinness (1998). It has been translated into
numerous languages, and is in fact, one of the best known tunes
world-wide. The original version (with different lyrics) was written by
Patty and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. The well known lyrics are of unknown
authorship, although they existed prior to 1912. An arrangement by
Preston Ware Orem was copyrighted by the Summy Company in 1935, who
claimed rights to the song in its entirety. That claim (since acquired
by Warner/Chappell) was challenged in court in 2013. The "You live in a zoo"
variation may actually have come from author Judy Blume (Are you
there God? It's me, Margaret, 1970), although I don't know if she
would prefer to take credit for it. It could also have been a
third-grade folk invention that she picked up on.
All the notes are the same, but with the rhythmic values altered, this
extremely familiar tune17 becomes virtually unrecognizable.
A composer might well use such techniques to create intentional
variations, and this is a frequent technique in expressionistic
performance. Consider Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday,"
sung for JFK. Of course, if you are looking for a complete
transformation, compare the Flying Lizards version
of "Money" to the Beatles'.
Rhythm is the root of Rock and Roll. But, while rhythmic variation is
what makes Reggae interesting and was a mainstay among certain metal
bands in the '80s (esp. Metallica and the like), it tends towards
regularity and sameness in most pop. Creative use of rhythm is notably
unusual in popular vocals, except in performance, as noted above. Lead
parts will often break through this barrier, but rock's roots in dance
music are particularly apparent in this area.
Outside of popular music, however, variations in rhythm have be a
frequent component in 20th century (and later) academic
composition, and in different ways, in Jazz. Stravinsky's "Rite of
Spring," which we took note of on the page about notation set the stage for
both tonal and rhythmic experimentation that dominated much of the
century. However, no one in their right mind would lump this with
'popular music.' Folks can usually deal with the occasional
⁵ ("Take Five"; "Do What You
Like"—both mentioned on the notation page), but that is about as
far as it goes.
Coming to a webpage near you
In the next section we will be discussing chord movement. See you there.