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.
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?
Songwriting Coach & Composer
With recommendations from industry heavyweights Erwin Steijlen (Pink, Shakira), Conrad Pope (John William’s orchestrator), Jeff Rona (God of War III, Traffic) and Rene Merkelbach (Within Temptation), Friedemann started his songwriting/producing school Holistic Songwriting in November 2015.