Chord Progression Tip: Creating and Using Suspensions

A suspension produces momentum in music by creating a tension which needs resolution.

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Folk guitarFirst, let’s define some of the terminology we use when talking about chords. A chord is three or more notes being played at the same time. A triad is a particular kind of chord: 3 notes in which the bottom note acts as a root, above which we find two other notes, one a 3rd higher, and the other a 5th higher.

In pop songs, practically all of the chords you hear are triads. Sometimes, however, one of the notes of a triad may be missing, replaced by a non-chord-tone. In all genres of music, from Classical to pop, a suspension is the most common kind of non-chord-tone we find. These so-called “sus chords” are a great way to add a bit of harmonic interest to music. Here’s how a suspension works.

If a chord chart for a song says to play G, you strum a G chord on your guitar, and you’ll hear the notes G-B-D in various octaves (listen -opens in a new browser window). If you see Gsus4, that means that any occurrence of the 3rd of the chord (B) has been replaced with a note that’s 4 notes above the root. So instead of hearing G-B-D, you’re now going to hear G-C-D (listen). That’s Gsus4. It’s that 3rd that’s been “suspended” – held up, if you like – and now we need to hear its resolution: a suspension is usually followed by a true unaltered version of the triad. So Gsus is usually followed by G.

That so-called 4-3 suspension is probably the most common type of suspension. But in fact, you can suspend any tone. That means you can have a 9-8 suspension (also called 2-1), and a 6-5 suspension.

Suspensions work best if the suspended tone existed in the previous chord. In fact, in strict music theory, that’s a requirement. You’ll find, however, that in pop music, suspensions can happen even if the suspended tone didn’t exist in the chord that came before.

So here’s a list of some typical suspensions, showing how they’re usually used, and a link to listen to them. Note that each suspension resolves to a simple version of the triad:

  1. 4-3 Suspension: C F Gsus4 G C (listen). Description: Gsus4 contains the notes G-C-D, which resolves to G (G-B-D)
  2. 9-8 (or 2-1) Suspension: C F G Csus9 C (listen). Description: Csus9 contains the notes of the C triad (C-E-G), but the uppermost octave of the chord contains a D which then falls to a C.
  3. 6-5 Suspension: C Am F Csus6 C (listen). Description: a Csus6 contains the notes C-E-A, which resolves to C (C-E-G). Note that a Csus6 will sound like an A minor chord with a C in the bass, and can be played the same way.

Suspensions are a great way to add something interesting to a chord progression. The only two things to keep in mind are: 1) In typical usage, a suspension should usually be followed by an unaltered version of the same letter-name chord; and 2) the melody note should not clash with the suspension. In other words, it won’t work to have an instrument playing Csus4, while a singer is singing an E.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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