I want to move from an FMaj to an Fmaj(6) chord. Putting a passing chord in between, a CMaj(3/4)(A second inversion dominant 7th) chord seems to work nicely. But these chords, at least in the common-practice period (CPP), are usually strictly controlled in other contexts. CPP harmony and voice leading puts many strict rules on creators, and I couldn't find many said rules on passing chords. This seems strange, that the same system that is so strict would just let passing chords slide.

In CPP harmony, what chords are considered acceptable as passing chords?


4 Answers 4


Passing chords are not generally analyzed as chords; rather, they are looked at as the result of contrapuntal motion and described in terms of voice leading but without giving them specific labels.

Sometimes, of course, a label applies, and then it might be used for convenience, but there aren't rules, per se, about which chords can appear as passing chords in specific contexts. Such "rules" would simply be restatements of more general voice-leading rules.

In the specific case of this question, it would just be labelled I V[4-3] I6, and its permissibility would be determined by the rules of voice leading. In this case, no problems are presented.


Passing chord is more of a pop/jazz concept. Passing tone is the common practice period (CPP) concept that is usually discussed.

However, there is one particular chord that does come up in CPP harmony which gets labelled as "passing" and that is the passing 6/4 chord. The idea is 6/4, second inversion, chords are unstable and so are used only in limited way.

CPP also uses the label passing chord as a catch all for a vertical group of tones that you don't label with Roman numeral analysis or doesn't have any major significance in the overall harmony. Parallel, diatonic 6/3 chords is an example. "Non-functional" is another term used in the same way as "passing". You might see passages described as "non-functional seventh chords", and that would have the same meaning as "passing chord." The important thing here is, in regard to "strict rules", you won't find "rules" about this, because the concepts are applied to exceptional cases that don't follow the normal, functional practices. Think of it as labeling for moments of harmonic artistic license.

When comparing CPP and jazz harmony theory take note of the difference in analysis between CPP secondary harmony and jazz passing chords. Jazz harmony has a passing diminished chord concept which in CPP would be analyzed as a secondary dominant or leading tone chord.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Really? I learned about passing chords on a course about classical tonal voice leading, specifically Jacob Gran.
    – OprenStein
    Feb 1, 2023 at 20:03
  • Yes, really. But don't read my answer as "passing chords don't exist in CPP." I didn't say that. I add to my answer to clarify vis-a-vis passing and essential function. Feb 2, 2023 at 14:51
  • I see. Thanks for clarifying.
    – OprenStein
    Feb 2, 2023 at 20:02

Passing chords vary depending on what you're prolonging. In short, here's a rough list:

  • To expand tonic, use either a viio6 or an inversion of viio7, V, or V7 (e.g., a second-inversion V7 connecting I6 down to I).
  • To expand predominant, use an inversion of tonic (e.g., a second-inversion tonic connecting IV6 to ii6, or I6 connecting ii and ii6).
  • To expand dominant, use IV6 as a passing chord.

There are other, rarer instances of passing chords. For instance, you can occasionally connect a root and first-inversion appearance of a chord with a second-inversion passing chord rooted a fifth above (e.g., connecting ii and ii6 with a passing vi in second inversion). But this rule doesn't always work (you can't prolong IV with a viio in second inversion), and in some cases it's downright unheard of (like a second-inversion iii to connect vi to vi6).

I would say the bulleted list above covers at least 95% of passing motion in the common-practice period.


Your suggestion of C43 is common in CPP. It's usually discussed without the seventh as a "passing" C64 chord and would be used between F63 and F or F and F63 or as a neighbor to F or F63. I haven't seen it discussed but I assume that secondary dominants could be used too (though one might get minor rather than major chords.)

Aaron's answer is correct in that these are often analyzed as contrapuntally generated patterns. It's (I think) the same as the dm6-C64-G7-C (ii6-I64-V7-I and similar) pattern.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.