• Avoiding the Avoid Note

    in Improvisation,Piano,Theory

    avoid note

    In this post, I want to talk about avoiding the “avoid note.”

    But the truth is, there are really no “wrong” notes in music. There’s a cutting-edge philosophy behind my submission so stick with me.

    There are no wrong notes; there are only poor choices.

    While I believe it’s wrong to say a note is wrong, there are undoubtedly notes to avoid in certain harmonic environments. Emphasizing avoid notes is often times a poor choice.

    The Avoid Note

    In traditional practice, scales contain seven notes per octave and these notes move in a step-wise progression – from the tonic (beginning point) to the octave which is the end point.

    E.g. – C major scale (C D E F G A B) contains seven notes.
    C D E F G A B

    The avoid note of the major scale is the 4th tone. In C major, the avoid note is “F.”

    avoid note F
    Most classically-oriented people may not want to believe this because of their familiarity with the fourth as an “unavoidable” note. Here are common facts about the fourth.

    In Intervals: Perfect fourth is formed by a melodic or harmonic relationship between the tonic and the fourth. E.g. –
    C F
    In traditional practice, even though there are situations where the perfect fourth sounds dissonant, the perfect fourth is generally considered a consonant interval.

    In Chords: There’s a strong relationship between the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the major scale. This is because they are related by fifths. In an order of importance, the first is most important, followed by the fifth, then the fourth. For musicians who play songs, you know that triads built on these three scale degrees can pretty much play ALL songs.


    Three Reasons Why The Fourth Tone Is An Avoid Note.

    I have given you traditional reasons why the fourth tone is important. Now, let’s look at some of the reasons why the fourth tone is considered as an avoid note.

    #1 – It forms an interval of a minor 9th with the 3rd degree of a chord.

    The 4th tone of the Major scale can yield an 11th.

    avoid note C F

    E.g. C-F above, is a compound interval. It’s similar to C-F:

    C F

    Now, if we go through the process of stacking thirds to form chords, E.g. in C major…

    Root Note

    then we add a 3rd
    C E

    then we add another 3rd – C Major triad
    C E G

    then we add another 3rd C Major seventh chord
    C E G B

    We can stack more thirds to create extended chords using compound intervals.

    Adding another third gives us a C Major ninth Chord
    C E G B D

    then, if we add another third – C Major eleventh Chord.
    C E G B D F

    On a C major 11 chord, there are six different pitches separated by 3rds – C E G B D and F.

    If we look at the interval between the 3rd and the 11th (E-F), it’s a minor ninth.

    E F
    In the scale of E, the ninth diatonic note is F#.
    E F sharp G sharp A B C sharp D sharp E F sharp
    If we number the notes of the E Major scale from E to F#, we’ll have exactly nine diatonic degrees.

    E F# G# A B C# D# E F#
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


    Therefore, E-F# is a ninth.

    E F

    If we lower the Major ninth (E-F#) by a semitone, it will form a minor ninth (E-F). The dissonance between the third and eleventh is intolerable – even in Jazz. It hasn’t gained acceptance because the 11th clashes with the 3rd and the 3rd is the most important chord tone (followed by the seventh).

    Therefore, in a major scale, the 4th tone is an avoid note because if played over a C Major 7th chord, it will clash with the 3rd.

    Why is this so? This is because of the interval of a minor 9th.


    #2 – We can’t find it on the interval cycle of fifths

    We are familiar with the cycle of fifths – where pitches are ordered in perfect fifths.


    If we start from C…

    A fifth above C is G
    C G

    A fifth above G is D.

    C G D
    C G D

    If we continue to move up in fifths…

    C G D A
    C G D A
    C G D A E
    C G D A E
    C G D A E B
    C G D A E B
    C G D A E B F#
    C G D A E B F sharp
    If these seven pitches are re-arranged in such a way that they’ll fit into one octave, we’ll have:

    C D E F sharp G A  B

    This new scale is founded on the principle of perfect fifths. There’s a substitution of the avoid note with its chromatic variant (F#).


    In the case of the Major Eleventh chord, we can raise the F to F# (its chromatic variant) to yield a Major 9th (#11th chord)
    C E G B D F sharp
    It has become common practice to play the raised eleventh.

    #3 – It is associated with the devil in music

    The 7th degree of the Major scale forms an interval of a diminished 5th with the 4th degree of the Major scale.

    In C major, B and F, which are the seventh and fourth tones of the scale, respectively, will form a diminished fifth.

    B F

    Alternatively, we can say that the 4th and7th degrees of the major scale form an Augmented 4th.

    F B

    Diminished fifths are the direct opposite of perfect fifths. The perfect fifth in traditional practice is seen as PERFECT CONSONANCE.

    Remember how we ordered notes in fifths and fit them into one octave? The relationship between ALL scale tones are in perfect fifths, except for the 7th and the fourth. The dissonance between these scale tones (B and F) was known as diabolic en musica meaning “devil in music” and in the time of modes, the 7th mode was not used in church because it has this diminished effect and was difficult to sing.

    So while we are playing scales, for example, in the key of C, we should consider to avoid the 4th tone of the major scale because of the dissonance that is obtained. Every other tone of the major scale are in perfect consonance (because they can be ordered into perfect fifths).


    The Major Scale Without The Avoid Note 

    Excluding the avoid note from the major scale yields a hexatonic (six-tone) scale which contains the 1st, 2nd 3rd, 5th 6th and 7th degrees of the major scale.

    C D E G A B

    Jazz pianist and improvisers have taken advantage of the hexatonic scale because of the absence of the avoid note. So the next time you’re improvising, keep it in mind that the 4th note of a scale is dissonant and therefore an avoid note… and you’ll be that much smoother!



    Please understand, once again, that avoid notes are not wrong notes. They are notes that “clash” with a given harmony. Because they are labeled as “avoid notes” does not mean that they cannot be used. The goal of this post is to let you know that you can manage the avoid note. So far, we’ve learned two things:

    1. Raising it to its chromatic variant (to yield a #11th):

    C D E F sharp G A B


    2. Omitting it.

    C D E G A B

    Until next time.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 4 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Joe

    Hi, nice one on the avoiding notes. I have a question, so let’s say I ommit the avoiding note or raise it to F#. How would my chord count be? Like for major scale it is maj min min maj maj min dim. If I ommit the 4th. How would I count it then. Thanks. And also for the pentatonic scale(devil in music), how would I count that after taking out 4th and 7th note. Thanks.


    2 Jermaine Griggs

    I don’t think the author meant totally avoid the “avoid note” in the formation of chords, as you’re implying. Avoiding the F major chord (the 4-chord) in C major would be detrimental. It is a crucial part of the key and harmony. The 1-4-5 chord progression (primary chords) are the most popular you’ll ever find in a key.

    What the author is referring to is when you want to solo or improvise in the key of C — the avoiding or altering of F as a single tone over C major and other related chords would sound better. In other words, playing C major on your left hand while trying to hold down F in your right hand solo would not be a good idea. It’s not a “bad” note as he points out… just a note to be cognizant of and one you’ll likely avoid in most improvisational situations.


    3 Ugly American

    What’s (at least) as important as WHAT note one chooses to play over a chord is WHERE the note is played. Check out Hal Galper’s explanation of “Forward Motion” on more of this concept. If you have a strong understanding of rhythm, strong beats, weak beats, upbeats, downbeats, et cetera, you can play any note you want and make it sound good all because you put it in the right place at the right time.


    4 Chuku Onyemachi

    You’re right! However, there’s no gainsaying the fact that the fourth tone of the major scale is not only an active tone; but an avoid note.


    Leave a Comment

    { 1 trackback }

    Previous post:

    Next post: