In general, approach notes tend to have shorter rhythmic values and are placed on weak beats. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules. Approach notes can also be placed on strong beats for brief moments within some musical contexts. In addition, this rule does not mean that all target notes must be long in duration. Some intricate lines may contain several eighth or sixteenth notes that are a mix of approach notes and target notes. However, these types of lines usually resolve with a longer tone that is a target note.
Another exception would be the use of a longer tone that is held over from a weak beat to a strong beat as an anticipation. In this instance, the pitch would be a non-chord tone in relation to the harmony on the weak beat but a chord tone in relation to the new harmony on the strong beat. It functions as an incomplete approach that anticipates the new harmony and transforms into a target note.
Passing tones and neighbor tones are the two basic types of non-chord tones used in approach note theory. A passing tone is a pitch that lies between two chord tones in a melodic phrase. When traveling from the first chord tone (target pitch) to the next chord tone (target pitch), the passing tone serves to create a smooth melodic line (stepwise motion).
One practice method for studying the application of approach note theory would be to create and practice performing all of the possible approach phrases for traveling between two specific target pitches. Once these approach phrases are mastered, the performer can transpose them to apply to a new set of target pitches. This style of practice aids in mastering a wide variety of approach phrases in a shorter period of time.
Another practice method would be to create 2 – 4 approach phrases for each chord change within a section (verse, chorus or bridge) of a song. Practice playing through the changes of the song applying these approach phrases in various patterns. For example, one performance could consist of playing approach phrase number one that you created for each change. After each approach is mastered in this way, another performance could consist of alternating between approach phrase number one and phrase number two while playing through the chord changes. Although this style of practice may not cover as wide of a variety of approach phrases, it does aid in mastering direct application to actual songs. Some people prefer playing actual music to rehearsing exercises. This method would help such individuals to remain engaged in the practice session.
When stringing various approach phrases together to create a musical improvisation, it is important to remember that recognizable melodic patterns help to orient and ground the listener. If a listener is bombarded with a collection of random melodies that are not related to each other in any way, he/she can become overwhelmed and lost in the music. Melodic patterns serve to provide structure and order within the music. In addition, melodies communicate ideas and feelings. Recognizable patterns aid in clarifying the melodic communication. Some composers have even used certain recognizable melodic patterns to personify different characters in plays, operas and movies.
In this Learning Music With Ray video I discuss the concept of approach note theory and explain how it can be applied to musical improvisation. I define the terms target pitches, passing tones and neighbor tones; and I explain the roles they all play in approach note theory. Finally, I provide musical examples of approaches derived from the chord changes of a song. I explain how these examples can be used to practice the skill of musical improvisation.