Chord Theory: Suspended Chords


This week, we’ll continue our study of chord theory with an explanation of suspended chords. This article assumes that you’ve read the articles below, so read them if you haven’t already.

One Step at a Time
Intervals: your tape measure for music
Chord Theory: Triads
Chord Theory: Power Chords
Chord Theory: Major Chords
Chord Theory: Minor Chords
Chord Theory: Diminished Chords

Alright, are you ready? Okay, let’s go. Suspended chords, or “sus” chords for short, are chords that don’t have a third, but rather a second or fourth in its place of the third. The absence of the third leaves the sus chord sounding ethereal and ambiguous. They are great replacements for major or minor chords.

There are two varieties of suspended chords: suspended two (sus2) or suspended four (sus4). Let’s look at a sus2 chord first.

In  a sus2 chord, the third of a major or minor chord is replaced with a note that is a major second away from the root. Consequently, the recipe for a sus2 chord is:

Root + major second interval = Second
Second + perfect fourth interval = Fifth

We’re left with a triad that doesn’t have a third, but rather a second. A sus2’s triad contains a root, a second and a fifth. Notice that the fifth has remained a perfect fifth away from the root as it is in minor and major chords. The recipe for a sus2 is major second + perfect fourth.

Now, let’s look at a sus4 chord, which really is the exact opposite of a sus2 chord. Remove the third from a major or minor chord and replace it with a note that is a perfect fourth away from the root. The recipe for a sus4 chord is:

Root + perfect fourth interval = Fourth
Fourth + major second interval = Fifth

We’re left with a triad that doesn’t have a third, but rather a fourth. A sus4’s triad contains a root, a fourth and a fifth. Notice again how the fifth is a perfect fifth away from the root. The sus4 recipe is perfect fourth + major second.

Let’s build an A sus2 and an A sus4 chord to see the chord in action. Since a sus chord can be thought of an altered major or minor chord, let’s build an A major and an A minor chord first. As you can see below, the third for the minor triad is C♯; the third for the major triad is C:

Now, we’re going to create an A sus2 by flattening the third in the minor triad. We’re also going to create an A sus4 by sharpening the third in the major triad. Be doing so, we’ll recreate the recipes that we discussed above. Thinking of sus chords as altered major and minor chords is a mental shortcut:

Here’s what we’re left with. See how our shortcut left us with the correct recipes for each of the sus chords?:

As you can see, the recipes that I discussed above hold true. The A sus2 triad follows the major second + perfect fourth recipe. The A sus4 triad follows the perfect fourth + major second recipe.

Now we’re going to create a playable A minor chord and compare it to the playable A sus2 chord:

Now, to get from a minor chord to a sus2 chord, we have to flatten the third of the minor chord:

Here is our final A sus2 chord:

Alright, let’s follow a similar procedure to find the A sus4 chord. Let’s start with a playable A major chord:

Now, to get from a major chord to a sus4 chord, we have to sharpen the third of the major chord:

Here is our final A sus4 chord:

So we covered a lot of ground, so here’s a summary of what you need to know:

  • A sus2 chord has a major second + perfect fourth interval recipe.
  • A sus4 chord has a perfect fourth + major second interval recipe.
  • The fifth of either of the two sus chords is the same as the fifth of a major or minor chord of the same root.
  • A sus2 chord can be found easily by flattening the third of a minor chord.
  • A sus4 chord can be found easily by sharpening the third of a major chord.
  • Both of the sus chords varieties are adequate replacements for both major and minor chords.
  • Sus chords have an eery, ambiguous sound that is often associated with a sense of longing or anticipation.

Next up: augmented chords.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.

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2 responses to “Chord Theory: Suspended Chords

  1. Cool, I didn’t know how these were defined. I knew every James Taylor song had them (Dsus2, Dsus4), but didn’t know exactly why. Now it makes sense.

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