The apoplexy over appoggiatura: an explanation

T his weekend, the Wall Street Journal tried its hand at music theory, and it wasn’t pretty.  (NPR ran a similar story on Monday’s episode of All Things Considered.)  In the article, WSJ writer Michaeleen Doucleff claims that “science has found the formula” to why Adele’s ballad “Someone Like You” makes everyone cry, and it’s not that it’s sad or Adele’s a badass or anything like that.  No, Doucleff says, it’s because of a marvelous musical device called an appoggiatura!  The appoggiatura, she claims, is that little ornament of the held-out “you” in Adele’s chorus “never mind, I’ll find someone like you,” where it dips down for a split second mid-note.  Take a listen:

Well, there’s something there, but it ain’t an appoggiatura.

And it wasn’t just me who noticed this error.  I’m not sure about the Wall Street Journal, but NPR received an onslaught of emails from outraged theory nerds like myself.  Yesterday, they aired a correction.  While it’s a step in the right direction, their composer-theorist guest (for various reasons) avoids a precise definition of appoggiatura and confusingly implies that other notes in “Someone Like You” are appoggiaturas when they are, in fact, not.1

An appoggiatura – forgive the cumbersome term – is one very specific kind of “non-chord tone,” or a note in the melody which doesn’t belong to the chord being played behind it.  Yes, Adele’s little dip is a non-chord tone, but it is not an appoggiatura, which has these requirements:2

  1. It must occur on an accented beat, usually the chord change itself.
  2. It must be approached by an interval larger than a step.  (The dip fails on this requirement; it’s approached by only a step.)
  3. It must resolve to a chord tone by a step.
  4. The resolution should be in the opposite direction of the approach – in other words, if the melody leaps up to the appoggiatura, it should resolve down.  And if the melody leaps down to the appoggiatura, it should then resolve up.

The so-called “appoggiatura” in “Someone Like You” fails requirement #2, and is therefore what you could call an accented neighboring tone – that is, a neighbor tone (where the melody goes up/down a step to the “neighboring” non-chord tone, and then back to the chord tone) that occurs on the chord change.  Or, because the note is so short and insignificant, you could even just slap the noncommittal title “ornament” on it and move along.

Later in the NPR follow-up, composer/theorist Rob Kapilow goes on to suggest that some of the melodies in the verse are appoggiaturas.  There are at least two, he says.  First, the song’s third and fourth words: “that you’re,” then the “found a girl.”  (Listen above to the beginning of the song.)  Both of these are also not appoggiaturas.  “That” isn’t approached by a leap (it’s an accented passing tone), and “found a” isn’t even a non-chord tone.

T rue appoggiaturas have a very distinctive sound.  Dissonant notes on the downbeat are often noticeable anyway, but the sound of an appoggiatura is extra accentuated by its arrival by a leap, because the melody leading up to it isn’t smooth.

There’s a great example in one of my favorite songs ever: the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection.”  In fact, an NPR listener fingered this very tune as an example of the elusive appoggiatura.3  It occurs on the “nec” syllable of “connection” in the line “someday we’ll find it: the rainbow connection.”  Check it out:

Here’s a transcription to help you out – the notes in parentheses are the chords, while above the words are the notes of the melody.

      D   F#  A            G#   A   F#
(Bm7) Someday we'll  | (E) find it, the
       E   G#  B            G# A#    D
(C#m7) rainbow con-  | (F#) nection, the
    D F#    A              C#        B
(D) lovers, the      | (E) dreamers, and
    A
(A) me.4

The bona fide appoggiatura is that G-sharp in the fourth measure, right on “con-NEC-tion.”  It’s clearly a non-chord tone; F-sharp major contains only the notes F-, A-, and C-sharp, so G-sharp doesn’t belong.  Second, the note is accented by its location on the downbeat and chord change.  Third, it’s approached by a leap (an interval of more than one step) – even though it’s only 1.5 steps, it still counts.  And finally, it resolves up to the A-sharp, a chord tone of F-sharp major, in the opposite direction of its approach.  It’s a very weirdly placed note, especially when followed by an accidental.  In effect, it draws the listener’s attention just before an out-of-key A-sharp.

Grizzly Bear’s 2009 hit “Two Weeks” is another example.  This appoggiatura happens in the opposite direction – the melody leaps up to the appoggiatura, then resolves down.  It happens throughout the chorus, on the first syllables of each “always,” “sometimes,” and “easy.”  Take a listen for yourself:

“Two Weeks” is in the key of F major.  The syllables in question are Gs over a B-flat major chord; they’re all approached by an upward fourth and resolve down to the F.  Here’s a transcription:

                               C     D
                 | (Am)    (C) would you
     G F                       C  D
(Bb) always      | (F)     (C) maybe
     G   F                     C    D
(Bb) sometime    | (F)     (C) make it
     G F                       C    D 
(Bb) easy        | (F)     (C) take your
     A  G C
(Bb) ti-i-ime...

This is a prime example of why it’s called the “leaning tone.”  There’s no doubt that the G will resolve to the F.  And in an analogous move, the entire B-flat major chord is similarly expected to resolve down to the F major, and sure enough, it’s the next fall after the G-F move in the melody.  It’s sort of a double lean that starts the downward momentum that carries through each line of the chorus.

On the surface, though, the usage of appoggiatura in “Two Weeks” and “Rainbow Connection” is similar.  They’re both used to delay the arrival of the chord change to the melody.  It’s an effective move; the unexpected non-chord tone draws the listener’s attention, which makes it extra satisfying when it resolves.  That said, the appoggiatura is still pretty rare.  In order to identify even two or three examples beyond “Rainbow Connection,” which I learned in school as an example of appoggiatura, I had to listen to nearly 100 songs.  And even then, a couple were too weak too include.5

R egardless, the major takeaway here should not about the magical power of the elusive appoggiatura.  It’s simply the name given to a very specific form of non-chord tone.  Yes, non-chord tones are effective melodic devices.  By moving off the chord, you create dissonance; dissonance begets tension; tension begets emotional response from the listener.  But they also occur very naturally in songwriting and don’t really warrant this kind of laser-focused analysis in a discussion about a topic as broad as “why music makes me cry.”

It’s true that Wall Street Journal and NPR got their definitions wrong.  But it’s much more important to understand that songs like “Someone Like You” don’t derive their emotional punch from something as simple as a single appoggiatura in the chorus.  What actually makes “Someone Like You” so powerful is a combination of more salient things: solid songwriting, tried-and-true chord progressions (here, I-iii-vi-IV and I-V-vi-IV), the contrast between the vocal ranges of the verses and the chorus, etc.  And of course, it always helps to have a very, very talented performer behind the microphone.

Becky Sullivan


1 All Things Considered only has two hours of airtime a day to devote to all of the news, and though they do an admirable job of considering all things, it’s asking a lot to spare more than a few minutes for extended music theory pedantry about the exact definition of a very specific musical term (no offense to self). So instead, Rob Kapilow provides a correct example from the classical literature, then the discussion moves on to other moments in “Someone Like You” (though, unfortunately, they are also incorrectly labeled appoggiaturas). 

2 This definition is the current standard for music theory classes and comes from my experience/textbooks in music theory classes in both high school and college. There is one major alternative view that calls an appoggiatura any accented non-chord tone that resolves by a step. This old-fashioned definition is not taught or widely used because it erases the (useful) distinctions between several different kinds of non-chord tones.

3 The other song this listener indicates, the Beatles’ “Try to See It My Way,” is unfortunately not an example of appoggiatura. The non-chord tones in question this time are accented neighboring tones again.

4 Man, that song is really nice. I’ll even admit to tearing up a bit in the new Muppets movie when Animal broke out with the drums.

5 Most of my failed appoggiaturas were similar to those misidentified by NPR – accented passing or neighbor tones (which fail because their approach is by step, not leap), or they were chord tones that sounded like non-chord tones on first listen.  Other times, the non-chord tone was unaccented (it fell on an offbeat), or it appeared at the start of a phrase (meaning it had no approach at all). 

Songs cited:
  • Adele Adkins and Dan Wilson, “Someone like You,” performed by Adele on 21, © 2011 by XL Records, XLCD 520. 
  • Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, “Rainbow Connection,” performed by Kermit the Frog on the Rainbow Connection / I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along 7″, © 1979 by Atlantic Records, STA 37283. 
  • Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks,” Veckatimest, © 2009 by Warp Records, WARPCD182.
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6 responses to “The apoplexy over appoggiatura: an explanation

  1. funny that you picked “The Rainbow Connection” as your illustration, because as I was thinking this issue over last night, it occurred to me that Paul Williams (the songwritin’ pride of Omaha Nebraska, writer of The Rainbow Connection and current president/chairman of the board of ASCAP) is pretty much the modern king of this particular musical device. It’s all over the songs he writes. Now, I’m not going to hassle you to go watch “Phantom of the Paradise” (which you should, ’cause it’s bananas) or listen repeatedly to “Evergreen” from the remake of “A Star Is Born,” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters, but you could do worse than track down anything from “Bugsy Malone” to hear that yes, Paul Williams is all about appoggiatura. I direct you here as exhibit A:

    (background to this, if you have never seen it: strange little movie; a gangster film entirely cast with children. Directed by Alan Parker, later to bring us “Fame” and “Angel Heart” and “The Wall” and my personal favorite, “The Commitments.” Basically, kids are enacting a story that is more or less the Prohibition-era alcohol-sales turf struggles in Chicago. They did not wish to show kids being shot to smithereens; instead of graphically showing someone getting splattered all over the side of a wall, the general convention in this film was to replace a gunshot with being hit with a cream pie. Hence, this scene. Jodie Foster was 13 at the time this was made.)

  2. This is great great great

  3. cameherefromcracked

    According to Nick Curry’s article about ostinato posted the same day as this one:

    “like just about everything else in music, definitions are always a little bit fuzzy. A little bit of variation is okay, since the ostinato is still recognizable and the feeling created by the ostinato remains.”

    Kind of makes you sound pedantic.

    • Haha of course it’s pedantic (I even said as much in one of the footnotes). But sometimes in music theory it’s useful to prescribe precise definitions to certain things, and talking about non-chord tones (of which appoggiatura is just one kind) can certainly be one of those times. Thanks for reading!

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