Why Avoid Notes may be f-ing up your melodies right under your radar. How to spot them, get rid of them and when it’s ok to write one.
I’ll be the first to admit that music theory is rather pointless when it comes to writing Pop music, but there’s one thing where music theory really helps to write better melodies: Avoid Notes.
In short, these are certain notes you should (drumroll:) avoid. These notes sound unpleasant because they “rub” against the harmony.
I hear songwriters use avoid notes all the time without knowing it and it really kills their melodies. And of course, you never hear them in hit songs.
So what exactly is an avoid note?
Here’s the clinical definition: An avoid note occurs when the melody is a b9 away from one of the notes in the underlying chord.
A b9 is basically a half-step. So if this is your chord:
Then these are the avoid notes (on the right):
And it doesn’t really matter which octave the avoid note is in. What matters is the type of interval it creates against one of the chord notes (a b9 or minor 2nd).
Don’t believe me that avoid notes sound less than great? Just isolate the 2 notes in the chord that rub against each other.
For example, one of the most common avoid notes amateurs use is the 4 (or 11) in major chords:
Play this on your instrument, then isolate the 2 notes that rub against each other (marked orange here):
Can you hear how problematic that sounds? That’s the sound of an avoid note and I can hear it from a mile away. Your goal is to develop the same kind of intuitive ear for avoid notes.
But it gets better: Avoid notes aren’t just ugly, they are also terribly difficult to sing. If you’ve ever sung in a choir and you had to sing a b9 above someone else’s part you will know how difficult it is to intonate.
The natural tendency of an avoid note is to resolve downwards, so what usually happens is you start singing in unison. The ear just can’t handle the tension so we automatically resolve the avoid note down to the chord tone.
All Avoid Notes In Major And Minor
So let’s look at all the important Avoid Notes in a Pop setting. Remember them and don’t use them again:
In Minor chords, the avoid notes are the b9, the major 3rd and the b13.
In Major chords, the avoid notes are the b9, the 11 and the b13.
The most common avoid note is the very tonal sounding 11 in major. It’s one of the white keys, right? So it should work:
Well, it doesn’t. Play it to yourself on the piano and burn the sound into your brain. If you hear this in one of your songs, isolate it and get rid of it.
How To “Avoid” Avoid Notes
There’s 2 very straight-forward ways of avoiding an avoid note:
1. Change The Note
Yeah, duh. Never would’ve guessed that one huh? Here’s an example:
2. Change The Chord
If you can’t change the note, change the chord. Find a chord that doesn’t rub with the melody, like in this example:
3. Alter The Chord
If you don’t want to change the note or the chord, you can also alter the chord by leaving out or altering the notes that rub with the melody. Note that by doing this, you will often change the function of the chord as well.
For example, if the melody hits an 11 above a major chord, the problematic note is the third of the major chord. So either leave it out (making the chord a Power Chord – see measure 2) or substitute it for a 2 or 4 (making the chord a Suspended Chord – see measure 3):
The same thing goes for all the other avoid notes. If you want a b13 in your melody, simply leave out the 5th of the chord (measure 2) or substitute the 5th for a b13 (measure 3):
Unlike most bits of theory, the rule of Avoid Notes is one that must not be broken in melody writing. Unless…
Unless you see yourself in one of the following 7 situations:
7 Exceptions Where It’s Ok To Use Avoid Notes
1. You want to Sound Tense
If it’s your goal to sound off, avoid notes are a great way of creating tension. I hear a lot of metal and experimental bands use them quite effectively to convey a sense of instability and destruction.
2. In a Dominant Chord
If you want your dominant chord to sound more dominant it’s ok to add a b9. 11s and b13s are still very unusual though.
3. If the Avoid Note is Short
In order for avoid notes to rub against the harmony they have to sound fully. In other words, if the note is just a quick passing tone and it’s “over before it begins” this is acceptable in writing.
4. If the Chord is Short
If the chord that the avoid note rubs with is only very short this might not be a problem. This is for the very same reasons as point 3: If the avoid note only occurs very briefly this is not problematic.
5. If the Chord is Not Playing At The Same Time
If there’s a break in the harmony and even if the chord is ringing out it might be alright to use an avoid note in the melody. You would definitely have to check whether the avoid note still sounds off, but as a rule of thumb this will do.
6. If the Avoid Note is Below the Chord
The very first time I played the following progression I was very aware of violating the Avoid Note rule. Turns out this totally works and it makes sense: As long as the avoid note is below the chord tone you don’t have a b9, you get a maj7, which is fine.
7. If the Avoid Note is on an Offbeat.
If the avoid note occurs on an offbeat (what is an offbeat? Find out in this video here) it may not qualify as a problem. Especially if there’s a new note on the onbeat right after it, this is seldom a problem. The avoid note becomes a sort of pick-up phrase here.
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QUESTIONS (Answer In The Comments)
- Be honest: How afraid are you to look back at your old songs and look for avoid notes?
- For the jazz nuts among you guys: If you’re playing a maj7 chord – what avoid notes does that give you? Which note might be kind of surprising and an easy trap to fall into?
- Can you think of hit songs in the past that have used avoid notes that don’t fall into one of our 6 exceptions?
I’ve never really had big problems with avoid notes. I learned a lot of theory in college and my professors were good about shaming students for sitting on avoid notes. lol I think my problem was writing melodies that were focused too much on chord tones which tends to be BORING as hell. lol
Over a major 7 chord I would say the avoid notes are b9, #9, 11, #11, b13, b7 and 1 (on top), although 1 works just fine if it’s voiced below the major 7. Also, in an Aeolian vamp like i – bVIMaj7 the #11 is actually a cool sounding note over the bVIMaj7 chord and ends up being the 9 over the i chord. Used wisely, it can create some nice tension that wants to resolve up to b3 or down to 1.
I’ll have to think about #3. Unrelated: Just listened to Peter Cetera/Amy Grant’s “The Next Time I Fall” (my guilty pleasure is 80s power pop ballads lol) and they modulate (hype) halfway through the 2nd verse. When I first discovered that I was like “WTF, who does that?” An 80s producer I guess. lol Any modern examples of songs doing that? BTW, just received “The Addiction Formula” and I’m enjoying it a lot man! Lots of good ideas and examples about how to control energy in a song. Have a good one…
P.S. I was reading pg. 117 in the book about hype and key changes and it made me think of the Celine Dion song “That’s The Way It Is.” The chorus is based in E Ionian. The bridge modulates to E Aeolian and then they move up to A Ionian for the last chorus. Up a Perfect 4th? Another WTF moment for me! I guess Max Martin can do shit like that when he’s got a world class vocalist singing his song. lol
Chord Tones are fine – it’s Pop, remember? 😉 We’re not making music for musicians. But of course I’ll cover non-chord tones in the Hook & Melody Master Files as well. Especially for colorful, dreamy melodies knowing your options helps tons.
The Avoid Notes in a Maj7 are per definition: b9, 11, b13 and the root note(!). And yes, as long as the root note is played below the chord it doesn’t classify as an avoid note (it’s one of the exceptions noted above). You’re right of course about the #9 & b7 sounding quite shite but that’s for other reasons (these note would change the character of the chord from major to minor or maj7 to dominant). On the other hand, the #11 is a GREAT note to play in a maj7 chord if you want to create an open, dreamy feeling. Jazz musicians especially like to spice up the last chord in a piece with #11s. And you’re right – it gives the chord a lydian touch (which is what you’re thinking of when you call it bVIMaj7 in minor).
The last example of modulating mid-verse I can think of is “The Riddle” by Gigi D’Agostino. I had the same WTF moment as you, especially because I had heard the song a couple of times as a teenager and never noticed it then 😉
So glad you’re enjoying the Addiction Formula – I’ll be posting your review on Facebook soon! If you would write me a review on Amazon that would be even better! Crazy key changes in “That’s The Way It Is”! I’ll have to check that out (unfortunately I can’t right now as my Youtube is blocked until tonight – keeps me at work, something I’ve written about before in an article on 7 Productivity Tips).
Thanks for your comments, they make me excited about writing for this blog and push me harder to write my best material.
P.S. Love that you’re already using “hype” in your vocabulary – according to business analysts, the key to success is implementation speed. Seems like you get it 😉
Good point about making music for non-musicians. I have to continually remind myself that pop music is about connecting with listeners on a primarily emotional level.
I used to do a solo guitar gig playing jazz standards at coffee shops and wineries so I was constantly looking for ways to reharmonize tunes and looking back sometimes I think it was a bit of an ego thing like, ‘hey, are you impressed with my large chord vocabulary and walking bass lines?’ Of course no one gave a shit about my hip BbMaj13#11 voicing on ‘Blue In Green’ (lol) but whenever I’d throw in a pop tune like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” suddenly I’d notice people begin to listen a bit…And then I’d go back to torturing their ears with more jazz tunes. I’m kinda twisted like that. lol
I’ll post a review on Amazon. Thanks for clarifying the avoid notes. I guess I was just thinking any note that would clash the given harmony. I understand now. Have a good one…
Phew, yeah. Been there, done that. I started out with Rock music so for me it was always the odd meters. Jumping from 7/8 to 5/4 to 6/8 to 4/4 etc. Very fun to play but unbearable to listen to 😉 Then I played Jazz and it was all about altered scales, diminished scales and never-ending chains of subVs 🙂 Thankfully, I’ve found my way back to what’s important: Emotion.
Just realized that this idea actually explains almost everything I know about jazz voicings concisely.
Some points from a jazz perspective:
The 7 b9 chord is in every other real book standard as a dominant chord, but it is inherently tense and I always end up positioning the b9 a couple octaves away from the root. Still, it’s a very useful chord for complicated reasons to do with the fact that C7 b9, Eb 7 b9, F#7 b9 and A7 b9 are all almost the same chord.
The chords maj7, m9, 11, maj7 #11, #9 and 13 all could contain a b9 interval but the best way to play them is pretty much always to arrange the notes so that it gets inverted to a major 7th instead. The b9 is the only chord where you can’t do this.
This is a big deal for me, I spent ages trying to work out how to use these chords nicely but could have done it in half an hour if I’d thought of this rule before.
The major seventh is probably the second clashiest interval, it gets used a fair bit in spite of this. Also worth mentioning is the tritone, but that’s really really common and not that bad at all.
It’s probably possible to rate how clashy an interval is based on whether it’s close to a neat fractional frequency ratio or not (e.g. a fifth is really harmonious because it’s a 3/2 frequency ratio), so is a major third as it’s 5/4. (ignoring adjustments for equal temprement tuning)
However, doing some quick maths shows that a major seventh is not nice, at best it’s either 15/8 or 17/9, but a flat 9 is 17/8 so not really any worse in theory.
My current theory as to why a b9 is so horrible but a major seventh isn’t as bad is that a b9 is also a tritone away from the fifth whichever way you arrange it, but a major seventh is a fifth away from the major third and a major third away form the fifth (in root position) which are much nicer intervals.
What a Superb Comment – thank you! Your mention of the C7 b9 – Eb7 b9 – F#7 b9 – A7 b9 relationship had me pick up my guitar in excitement. I’ve used the bII7 and bVII7 extensively but I had totally forgotten about the III7. What a cool substitute for a dominant.
for anyone interested, the chords above are similar because they all include a diminished 7th chord (1-b3-5-bb7) and since this is a symmetrical chord made up of only thirds, its inversions are diminished 7th chords as well (e.g. c-eb-gb-bbb = eb-gb-bbb-dbb). So technically, there are only 3 diminished 7th chords in total. The chords above all use the same diminished chord (eb-gb-bbb-dbb in C7 b9, eb-gb-bbb-dbb in Eb7 b9, a-c-eb-gb in F7 b9 and a-c-eb-gb in A7 b9). The only difference between the chords is a single note. (c in C7 b9, fb in Eb7 b9, f in F7 b9 and bb in A7 b9).
Interesting theory on b9/Maj7. I read your last paragraph first and was eager to write a clever paragraph on the uppertone scale when I saw that you had already done that. –> Shame on you! 😉 The clash with the 5th seems like a logical argument and I bet you’re right.
I’m surprised that this is one of the top articles, because this is the stupidest thing I read on this blog so far.
It is so stupid that it hurts… because it’s the most obvious thing ever.
listen to the Beatles You Can’t Do That. Lennon sings c on G7 (first bar), and f on C7 (bar 10): both avoid notes, and both sound great! always let your ears be your guide, never some theory book 🙂
Thanks, I’m always looking for examples for avoid notes. And you’re right, it doesn’t bother me here (maybe because the notes are short enough).
Be careful though with Avoid Notes depending on the music you are going for! If you are playing music in a weird modal scale or are using chord inversions, these rules can sometimes be bent or broken! For example:
Let’s say that you are playing in E Phrygian
Let’s Say that you have a first inversion VI chord. This chord would be an inverted C major triad, Or E G C. If you wanted to transition to a ‘ii’ chord, you would move the E to an F and the G to an Ab. Therefore, you would be moving from VI to ii by ONLY using avoid notes on the Root and 3rd of a chord. So be mindful, because Avoid notes can sometimes be helpful when transitioning chords in a harmonic sense.
I can’t understand of this because I don’t know what is b9 or terminologies. Can you take a scale as an example and explain all of this.
Thanks for the information
good one keep it up
So i’m confused… in your melody #23 video, it says to leave out the fifth of the Am chord to sing the F… but wouldn’t this make an f chord? Unless the Am is part of the harmonic sequence, but that’s not super clear in the vid…
That all depends on how long we hear that f. If we just hear it for a second before it resolves back down to the e, the chord will still sound like an Am.