I want to start discussing approach note theory as it relates to melodic improvisation. In preparation for that discussion, I am using this week to explain neighbor tones and passing tones. These two types of melodic ornaments are the fundamental ingredients in approach note improvisation.
The main concept to grasp in this discussion is the difference between a target pitch and a ornament or traveling pitch. A target pitch is the primary pitch of the melodic passage. It is both related to and supported by the overall harmony in that section of the music. I say "that section" because music can often contain harmonic moments that travel outside the main key signature to introduce leading tones or suggest other temporary key centers. The most basic target pitch of a given melody would be either the 1st, 3rd or 5th interval of chord at that moment of the music. More complex styles of music also incorporate target pitches that are the 7th, 9th, 11th or 13th of the chord.
Ornament or traveling pitches are pitches that are outside of the overall harmony in that section of music. The strongest examples are chromatic in relation to the intervals of the present harmony. For this reason, they cannot be utilized as foundational pitches within the melodic passage. Instead, they act as additional melodic dressing around the target pitches, and provide fleeting moments of melodic variation. Pitches that are diatonic to the present harmony, but weaker in relation when compared to the focus pitch can also be used (such as 9ths, 11ths and 13ths).
Neighbor tones are ornaments that are related to one target pitch. There are actually two types of neighbor tones, complete and incomplete neighbors. A complete neighbor tone starts on the target pitch, travels (a half or whole step up or down) to the neighbor tone and then returns to the target pitch. An incomplete neighbor tone starts on the neighbor tone (a half or whole step above or below) and then travels to the target pitch. The mindset is that the target pitch is the melodic goal and the neighbor tone is a fleeting pitch that leads to the goal.
Passing tones are ornament that are related to two target pitches. They are melodic content used to travel from one target to the next by filling in the gap. For example, if a melodic passage contained the pitches E - D - C over a C major harmony, the D would be considered a passing tone traveling from the 3rd interval (E) to the 1st interval (C) of the chord. When traveling between the 5th and root of a chord the gap is filled with two passing tones.
Next week I will discuss approach note theory in melodic improvisation. I will expound on this discussion and show how the concept of target notes can be used to introduce additional pitches and chromaticism into your improvisation. Please comment with any questions you may have in preparation for next week!
Ray Melograne received his BA and ME in music education from Queens College. He is currently teaching music in the NY public schools. He also teaches privately on the Zoen.com network.