A passing chord is a decorative chord which does not affect the overall harmonic structure of the music – it is like a passing note[1], but written as a whole chord.

Passing chords can be inserted between two chords that we would normally expect to find right next to each other, for example between chords V and I. Although V does not normally move to IV, the chord IV in this example does not count as part of the progression, because V still moves to I on the strong beats of the bar. IV is a passing chord and the main progression is V-Ib.

Passing chord

Sometimes a passing chord sits between two different inversions of the same chord. In this example, chord V is the passing chord, sitting between two different inversions of chord IV. Essentially, this progression is IV-vib-V.

passing chords

Usually, the passing chord is not accented or otherwise emphasised, and the bass part will move by step for three notes. The passing chord harmonises the middle note.

If you see a progression where the chord or inversion looks like it is out of place, consider whether it is in fact a passing chord, and therefore allowable.

A common type of passing chord is the “passing 6/4”.

Passing 6/4

The passing 6-4 is another progression where you can use a second inversion chord. In a passing 6-4 the bass moves by step for three notes, and the 6/4 chord is the middle one.

passing 6/4

In a passing 6/4, the second inversion chord normally falls on a weak beat of the bar.

Look at the passing 6-4 above and notice that:

  • the bass line moves by step: C – D – E,
  • the second inversion chord (Vc) falls on a weak (middle) beat,
  • the other parts move by the smallest possible steps.

As you can see, passing 6/4s are very unlike cadential 6/4s, although both of them use second inversion chords. Here’s a summary of the differences:

Passing 6/4Cadential 6/4
Falls on a weak beatFalls on a strong beat
Bass moves by stepBass note is repeated or held
(Almost) any chordOnly Ic

If you are choosing chords to harmonise a melody, look for places where the melody moves up or down by three notes, by step. Put the same notes in the bass, but in reverse order, and use a second inversion chord for the middle chord.

The following melody will work with three 6/4 chords – can you spot where they will work?

second inversion chords question

The first two bars will work with passing 6/4s, and a cadential 6/4 will work at the end.

For the passing 6/4s, the bass will move by step in contrary motion with the soprano.

For the cadential 6/4, the bass note will be repeated.

second inversion chords answer

Here are the full chords:

with full chords

[1] See “Decoration” for more about passing notes.