Avoid Notes in Music

Avoid Notes in Music

I’ve been teaching guitar and music theory for many years now, and there’s one important subject that always confuses my students - Avoid notes!

It is an important concept, especially in Jazz, it is a simple one to understand but a lot harder to put into practice.

In this article, we are going to break down this subject to its core.

avoid notes of modes / major scale

Why do we need to learn about “avoid notes”?

The “avoid notes” subject is as important as any other basic musical concept in music. You need to understand it in order to be able to learn more complex ideas in the future.

This concept is often used in Jazz, where the harmony is constantly changing and the musicians need to follow. In other words, if you play Jazz, you most certainly have to know this subject up-side-down.

What are Avoid Notes

Avoid Notes are notes of a certain scale, that collide with other notes from the same scale in a certain musical moment.

Physically speaking, these are certain pitches that destabilize the harmonic sense of a musical moment.

In practice, these are notes that won’t fit in a current musical moment. Each scale can be divided into modes and each mode of the scale has its own avoid notes.

 

For example, in the C major scale, we can find the note F. When playing the C major triad chord with an F in the mix, it will sound unstable because of a certain clash of power inside the harmonic structure.

A common misunderstanding: avoiding these notes doesn’t mean we can never play these notes over a certain chord, we can use them as passing or approach tones but that’s a whole different subject! Find out all about it in the “Non-Chord Tones” article.

“Avoid notes” should be used on weak beats, as connectors and smaller steps of a general melody or harmony. The “avoid notes” should never be the target notes and will usually be short.

Everything will get clearer soon, don't worry!

We said before that an avoid note is a note that clashes with another note in any musical combination.

There are 3 ways for that to happen, therefore, we have 3 types of avoid notes:

1. Tonal Avoid

2. Functional Avoid

3. Color Avoid

Let's go over them one by one...

The Tonal Avoid Note

Every organic note is built out of a series of notes (a fundamental note and overtones). To our human ear that combination just sounds like any certain single pitch. That series of overtones will always be constructed out of octaves 5th and 3rd intervals (in upper octaves). 

That means that every (single) note that we play on the guitar contains its Major 3rd, Perfect 5th, and Perfect 8th (octave) upper interval as well.

For example, when you play the C note on your guitar, it holds inside it the C, G, and E notes well. We, of course, can’t hear it as harmony, but as a single pitch. That physical process is important in order to understand the relationships between notes.

avoid notes in modes

Here you can see the order of which the harmonies are spread inside a note! We can see that the first interval is an octave followed by a perfect 5th, another octave, and a major 3rd and a minor 3rd.

harmonic series in music

After understanding the structural form of an organic note (not synthesized), we can see how notes can support one another. We can see that there is some kind of relationship between notes that are located a major 3rd and a perfect 5th from one another.

For example, when we play C and G together, our ear will be attracted to the C note. When we play Bb with D, our ear will be drawn towards the Bb note because D is in the Bb overtone series.

Now, let’s look at the major scale. Which notes are the strongest and draw more attention to them? And which notes are neutral to one another.

We are going to use the overtone rule we've just learned in order to make up which of the two is the stronger note. We can determine this by playing the notes as well, try it!

avoid notes in music

 

We can see that out of the 7 notes of C major scale, 3 notes attract more attention and “win” in more confrontations with the other notes in the scale.

These notes are C, F, and G. Let's check out the relationship between these 3 "winner" notes:

Round 2:

avoid notes in music

Round 3:

avoid notes in music

Now we can see that F in C major scale is a center of gravity, therefore when playing the C major chord or scale, F is an avoid note because it throws us away from the musical center of the scale (or chord)!

When examining this “Tonal avoid” reaction we can conclude that every note located one semitone above a chord tone is a tonal avoid!

For example:

Tonal avoid notes examples

Functional Avoid Notes

A functional avoid note is a note that will change the current functionality of a chord.

As we already know, every chord in a scale shares a certain harmonic function - Tonic (resolution), Dominant (tension), or Subdominant (mid-level tension) function.

If you don’t already know these things, we highly recommend you to check out the “Harmonic Function” article!

The defining note of a tonic is the 3rd degree of the scale, the defining note of a Subdominant chord is the 4th degree of the scale and the defining notes of the Dominant chords are the 4th and 7th degrees of the scale.

harmonic function in chords

Therefore, there can’t be a Tonic chord with a 4th degree in it, there can’t be a Subdominant chord with a 4th and 7th degree in it and there can’t be a Dominant chord with the first degree in it.

These notes will change the functional attribute of the chord.

For example, C major chord consists of C-E-G, if you add the F note into the mix, the chord will no longer be a Tonic since it consists of the 4th degree of the scale (yes, an avoid note can be both Tonal and Functional).

Let’s look at this cadence and analyze what we just learned.

avoid notes examples

1. The note C in Gmaj7 is a tonal avoid note, as we already know but it also creates a Tritone inside the chord which turns it into a Dominant chord. The Tritone C-F# wishes to resolve into Db-F or G-B, therefore, C in Gmaj7 is also a Functional avoid.

2. The note F# in Am7 also creates a Tritone inside the chord and therefore changes its functionality. Try to play this chord and listen to the collision of the notes inside the chord. Listen to how it makes the chord sound indecisive and characterless.

3. The note G in D7 is the target note of the D7 Triton (F#-C). Placing this Tritone and its target note in the same chord creates clashes inside the chord which leads to a lack of stability and character. It is a Tonal avoid note.

Color Avoid Notes

In the major scale, we have 4 types of seventh chords, 4 different colors of chords, maj7, m7, 7, and -7b5.

A color avoid note is an avoid note that changes the chord from one type to another.

For example, if you add the note C to the chord B-7b5 (can be also written like this - Bø) we have a clash of powers inside the chord, therefore this is a tonal avoid note!

If we add the G note to this composition, the chord is changed into G7/B, this is not a technical avoid note but we want a certain color when choosing a certain chord, therefore G on B-7b5 is a color avoid note!

Now, after learning about all the different types of avoid notes, let’s look at the major scale's modes, chords, and their avoid notes and available tensions!

Mode Available Tensions Avoid Notes
Ionian (Cmaj7) 9,13 11
Dorian (Dm7) 9,11 13
Phrygian (Em7) 11 b9, b6
Lydian (Fmaj7)
9,13
#11 (can serve as tension as long as its the ONLY tension)
Mixolydian (G7)
9,13
11
Aeolian (Am7)
9,11
b6 
Locrian (Bm7b5) 11 b9, b6
avoid notes table, modes avoid notes

This table will help you memorize all of the avoid notes of the major scale:

avoid notes table

Now you know what are the available tensions in every chord of the major scale. These tensions give extra coloring options to the composer and enrich the simple chords you already know.

Some genres are well known to use more “seasoning”, genres like Jazz, R&B, Neo-Soul, and even Hip-Hop, and others use another and a more harmonically "simple" pallet of colors, it is a matter of taste!

That's all for now fellas!

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