Monthly Archives: February 2012

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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Ostinatos: repetition isn’t just to annoy you

Y ou know that feeling where you just can’t get a tune out of your head?  It might drive you nuts – especially if it’s the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” stuck there yet again (it happens to all of us).  Annoying to us, yes, but songwriters and composers collectively say “mission accomplished” when that happens.  They even have tools to help make it happen.

One especially effective earworm device started showing up a lot in the Baroque Era.1  It’s called the ostinato, which is basically a ten-dollar music theory word for a short musical idea that gets repeated over and over (and over) again while other things change around it.2  (If that sounds kind of annoying, note that “ostinato” comes from the same Latin root as “obstinate.”)  Here’s a charming example from St. Paul’s Suite by turn-of-the-twentieth-century composer Gustav Holst.  Listen for the violins – specifically, to how they never change.

The violins play an up-and-down pattern over and over and over again.  The rest of the music swirls around it, using the violin ostinato as a sort of backbone to the entire movement.3  The repeated idea is a point of stability, lending a consistent element to a section of music. This consistency helps make sectional changes more apparent as well – if the composer either drops the ostinato as the music changes, or returns to the ostinato when music of an earlier section returns, that recognizable little musical lick helps make these changes very apparent.

Ostinatos can do more than clarify form and add structure to a work.  The relentlessness of an ostinato can be used with great effect to create a tense, nervous mood.  Take the title theme to the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo.  Composer Bernard Herrmann keeps that unnerving arpeggio going through the violin part, creating a feeling of tension and nervousness.

O kay, so classical (and film) composers use the ostinato.  But pop musicians are guilty of using these catchy, repetitive lines as well.  Here’s an example from Sufjan Stevens – the song is “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” from his 2005 opus Illinois. Listen to the piano, which starts up eleven seconds in.5

That little piano lick is the ostinato.  It’s useful to Stevens as an anchoring tool.  Because the song goes back and forth between two distinct sections, its presence immediately alerts his listeners when the A section returns later.6

In addition to its usefulness as a structural tool, ostinatos are also really good at creating mood.  Sometimes the repeated idea is extremely influential in establishing the character of an entire piece.  One good example is the synth line in the intro and choruses to M83’s hit song “Midnight City,” off of the 2011 release Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.  We’re introduced to the ostinato immediately – it’s that scratchy four-note lick that repeats again and again.  It drops out when the verse begins, but every time the chorus returns, the synth line comes right back in all its anthemic, repetitive glory.

The vaguely sad and regretful tone of “Midnight City” owes a lot to the ostinato and its flexibility as the chords change underneath it.  It also strongly emphasizes the chorus (and the sense of arrival that comes with reaching a chorus).

But that’s not its only role here.  “Midnight City” also uses the ostinato to play a trick on the listener about halfway through the song.  Listen again starting around two minutes in, just as a chorus is about to end.  At 2:08, the next verse begins… or so it should.  But at 2:13, the ostinato is back, but it sounds weird – this is confusing.  We’re in a verse?  But with the ostinato?  We haven’t seen that before.  At 2:18, vocalist Anthony Gonzalez reenters with the verse, sung over the underwater-sounding version of the ostinato that entered just a few seconds earlier.  It’s a neat trick.  The verse-ostinato association here anticipates the final chorus, when the ostinato will finally return to its original form and help carry the song to its resolute conclusion.

And here you thought repetition was boring.

Nick Curry


1 The Baroque Era is the period of classical music beginning around 1600 and ending around the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. The distinctions between musical epochs are always a little bit fuzzy, but you might recognize this period as the time when people still thought harpsichords were a good idea.  

2 Despite the fact that it sounds like something you might buy from Starbucks, I think I can safely promise that ordering a “caramel ostinato” might not work out for you.

3 Ostinatos don’t have to be a repeated tune – repeated rhythms are fair game too. And there aren’t many repeated rhythms more iconic than this one from another Holst piece, “Mars, the Bringer of War” of The Planets.  The rhythmic ostinato is found earlier in the piece as well, but it really comes into the foreground here. And for added “Mars” fun, here’s an amusing scene from Venture Bros., where “Mars” plays/is sung as the henchmen suit up.  

4 Okay, you might be thinking “you said an ostinato is a repeated idea, I thought an ostinato wasn’t supposed to change!  And this one definitely changes.”  Well, 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. 

5 Regarding the video: I couldn’t pass up the video with this glorious photo.  I’m a Kansan; we’re trained from youth to love open spaces.

6 If you listen to the way the pieces of this song fit together, you’ll note that two sections are repeated, creating an ABAB form. You can hear how the meter and key change between the two sections – in the ‘A’ section, the music alternates between 5/8 and 6/8 meter and is in a minor key, while the ‘B’ section features 4/4 time and is in a minor key.

Songs cited:
  • Gustav Holst, Ostinato, St. Paul’s Suite, performed the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Hogwood.  © 2003 by Deutsche Grammophon. 
  • Bernard Hermann, “Theme,” performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on the original soundtrack to Vertigo, © 1958 by Mercury Records, MG 20834. 
  • Sufjan Stevens, “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” Illinois, © 2005 by Asthmathic Kitty Records, AKR014.
  • M83, “Midnight City,” Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, © 2011 by Naïve Records, NV824311.

Part writing “Winters Love”

T here’s no music more appropriate for this well-disguised “winter” than my favorite Song About Winter Which I Came To Love During A Summer, an Animal Collective tune called “Winters Love.”1  The song is split into three equally excellent parts, but the first minute and fifty seconds are especially fun.  Give ’em a listen:

In short, here’s what’s cool:  The three voices in the intro follow part writing rules to a tee – so it’s possible (and pretty easy!) to fill in the fourth part and make a traditional four-part SATB chorale out of “Winters Love.”

(A four-part chorale, by the way, is a progression written for voices in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass – often abbreviated SATB.  The soprano is the highest voice and frequently the melody; the bass is the lowest and often the main indicator of chord and harmony.)

There are a few hard rules and many soft rules for part writing, but here are five of the most important:

  1. Keep voices in their respective ranges.  There are typical ranges for each voice that should be followed.  Generally, sopranos sing from the D below the treble staff up to the G above it.  Altos sing from the G below up to the treble staff to the fourth-line D.  Tenors sing from the third-line D in bass clef up to the G above it, and basses sing from E below the bass staff to the C above.  Also, the soprano/alto and alto/tenor pairs should never be more than an octave apart (though the bass can wander to its heart’s content).
  2. No voice crossing.   Each voice should aways stay in order: soprano, alto, tenor, bass.2
  3. Make sure tricky notes resolve properly.  In the soprano or bass, the seventh note of the scale should always resolve up to the tonic (unless it’s a part of downward stepwise motion); the second should always resolve down to the tonic.  In all voices, in any 7 chord (like G7), the seventh (in this case, F)  should resolve down a step.
  4. No parallel fifths or octaves.  This is a big one: parallel motion in intervals of a perfect fifth or octave is a big no-no.  There’s no point to having multiple voices if they’re effectively identical.
  5. Try to double the root or the fifth of the chord.  Because a triad only has three notes, you’ve got to double something.  If a chord is in root position, double the root.  If it’s in first inversion, you can double anything – doubling the third is actually preferable in this situation.  If it’s in second inversion, double the fifth.  In a cadence, you can even triple the root (leaving out the fifth).  And never double the leading tone.  Because the leading tone is such a strong harmonic tone, it’s a little overwhelming to use it in more than one voice at a time.

It’s, well, a lot to keep track of (that was actually sixteen rules, not five, if you’re counting a little less generously).  I can speak from personal experience as a former high school music theory student: it’s near impossible to casually slap down a chorale that follows all the rules.  There’s always something to screw up.   There might be too much space between the upper voices, or an improperly resolved seventh, or a sneaky pair of parallel fifths between the soprano and tenor, or whatever.  To write a totally proper chorale, no matter how basic the chord progression, is a very deliberate and conscientious process. So that’s why the opening of “Winters Love” is such a pleasant surprise.  

A vey Tare and Panda Bear deliver the soprano, alto, and bass of a chorale that contains basically no errors (read the footnote on the bass line for more on that).  Here’s a transcription – voices in order from soprano to bass, and the chord names are at the bottom:

sop |Eb--G-Bb----|Bb--AbG---F-|Eb----C---Bb|Eb----------|
alt |Bb--D-D-----|D-----Eb--D-|C-----Ab----|G-----------|
ten 
bas |Eb----G-----|Bb----Eb----|Ab----Bb----|Eb----------|
============================================

cho |Eb    Gm    |Bb    Cm    |Ab    Bb7   |Eb    Bb    |

sop |Eb--G-Bb----|Bb--AbG---F-|Eb----F---D-|Eb----------|
alt |Bb--G-D-----|D---EbEb--D-|C-----Ab----|G-----------|
ten 
bas3|Eb----G-----|Bb----Eb----|Ab----Bb----|Eb----------|
============================================
cho |Eb    Gm    |Bb    Cm    |Ab    Bb7   |Eb          |

Let’s see how Avey and Panda did re: the rules.

  1. Ranges/distance between voices: Check.  The soprano is the most questionable, as it dips all the way down to the lowest note “allowed,” a D just below the treble staff.  The soprano and alto maintain an appropriate proximity throughout the intro.
  2. No voice crossing/overlap: Check.
  3. Proper resolutions: Check!  In the soprano, every second resolves down and every seventh resolves up.  In the penultimate Bb7 chord, the seventh (the Ab in the alto voice) resolves down stepwise to G.
  4. No parallel fifths or octaves: Check.  Not even close.

For the “fifth” rule about doublings – these rules don’t really apply here (yet), because there are just three voices.

I n the interest of a pointless but fun exercise, I’m going to add in the tenor voice, and this is where the doubling rules come in handy – they help indicate which note remains to be sung by the final voice.

In the first E-flat major chord, the soprano and bass both sing an E-flat while the alto sings B-flat, the fifth.  This leaves out G, the third – so the tenor’s first note is going to be a G.  The second chord is iii, or G minor.  This one has been fully voiced already, so I’ll double the root, G.  The subsequent B-flat major chord is missing F, its fifth, and the C minor chord that follows is missing its root, C.  Very easy so far.

The third measure of the first phrase is tricky.  The IV chord at the beginning is fully voiced, so my first instinct is to double the root, A-flat.  The trouble comes with the chord that follows, which is a V7.  But!, Avey and Panda have included just the root and seventh.  This leaves not one, but two chord tones left to be voiced, yet the tenor can only sing one.  In this case, it has to be D, the third.  Part writing rules say that you are allowed to double the root in a seventh chord, as long as you keep the seventh (the note that makes it a seventh chord as opposed to a normal triad) and the third (another note that indicates chord quality).  In a nutshell, the fifth isn’t necessary, but the other three notes are.   So D it is.

However, asking the tenor to sing A-flat before D isn’t very nice – nor is it allowed – because the interval between those two notes is the tritone, the most dissonant (and therefore, toughest to sing) of all the possible intervals.

But there’s an easy solution: instead, the tenor can just sing an E-flat during the IV chord.  That’s the second-best doubling solution, and the one I’ll go with here.  (Blessedly, this is only a problem in the first phrase; during the second portion, soprano supplies the D, allowing the tenor to sing the preferred A-flat during the preceding chord. And finally, even though the final I chord is missing its fifth, it’s no big deal – in fact, it’s probably preferable to send the second resolving down by just one step to the tonic rather than jumping up a sixth to B-flat.)

Here’s the fully voiced transcription:

sop |Eb--G-Bb----|Bb--AbG---F-|Eb----C---Bb|Eb----------|
alt |Bb--D-D-----|D-----Eb--D-|C-----Ab----|G-----------|
ten |G---BbG-----|F-----C-----|Eb----D-----|Eb----------|
bas |Eb----G-----|Bb----Eb----|Ab----Bb----|Eb----------|
============================================

cho |Eb    Gm    |Bb    Cm    |Ab    Bb7   |Eb    Bb    |

sop |Eb--G-Bb----|Bb--AbG---F-|Eb----F---D-|Eb----------|
alt |Bb--G-D-----|D---EbEb--D-|C-----Ab----|G-----------|
ten |G-----G-----|F-----C-----|Ab----F-----|Eb----------|
bas |Eb----G-----|Bb----Eb----|Ab----Bb----|Eb----------|
============================================
cho |Eb    Gm    |Bb    Cm    |Ab    Bb7   |Eb          |

Listen again and play or sing along (Mi, so-mi, re, la, do, ti, do!  Mi, mi, re, la, fa, re, do!).  It works!  And it more than works – four-part chorales have staying power not because of archaic music theory teachers, but because they just sound pretty damn great.  And the lovely orchestration by Animal Collective certainly doesn’t hurt.

And to be extra nerdily thorough, here’s a notated transcription.

Bach would be so proud (and our high school music teachers, too).

Becky Sullivan


1 No typo here: it is titled “Winters Love,” not “Winter’s Love.” For some typically indecipherable Animal Collective reason, “winters” is not a possessive, despite the lyrics that ask “and winter’s love, where could she be?”.

2 And while you’re at it, avoid voice overlap, which happens when one voice sings a note at or above a note previously sung by a higher voice (or at/below a lower voice). This disrupts the previously established range for each voice – but it isn’t too big of a deal if the overlap is pretty spaced out.

3 Avey and Panda mess it up for themselves a few times with this bass line. Most of the time it reads as I’ve transcribed: Eb, G, Bb, Eb, Ab, Bb, Eb. But occasionally they switch up the penultimate measure, singing a C instead of Ab. This results in !! PARALLEL OCTAVES !! between the bass and alto, which is a big no-no. In the interest of simplicity, I’m going to, well, pretend that never happens.

Songs cited: Animal Collective, “Winters Love,” Sung Tongs, © 2004 by Fat Cat Records, FAT-SP08.