Chord Theory: How to Create and Use Suspensions

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Acoustic guitarWe know that most of the time, the chords you use in your songs are triads, which are 3-note chords comprised of a root, a 3rd and a 5th. When you strum a C major chord, you’re playing a C (the root), an E (the 3rd) and a G (the 5th).

To that, we often add 7ths, which don’t significantly change the sound or effect of a progression. For example, the progressions C F G C can be modified by adding 7ths to each chord: Cmaj7 Fmaj7 G7 Cmaj7. But as you’ll hear when you play them, the basic sound and function of each chord remains the same.

Another modification that’s a favourite of many composers of music is to create chord suspensions. A suspension means that one of the tones of the chord is higher than what was anticipateded, eventually “falling down” to reach the note that’s expected.

For example, a Csus4 means that instead of playing a simple C triad (C-E-G), the 3rd of that chord (E) is raised to be a semitone higher, giving us this chord: C-F-G. That F is what’s meant by the ‘4’ in Csus4.

Any note of a chord can be suspended, or raised up, but certainly raising the 3rd to be a 4th, called the sus4, is the most common one. In fact, if you see a chord labeled Csus (no ‘4’), the assumption is that it’s a Csus4.

Here are some examples that show typical usage:

  1. C F G7 Csus4 C
  2. C F Gsus4 G C
  3. Cmaj7  Fsus4  F  G7  C

You’ll notice a couple of things about each sus-chord that are typical of the way they are usually found in progressions:

  1. The suspended tone exists in the previous chord. In the first progression above, the suspended tone in Csus4 is F. That F exists in the previous chord, G7. In the second progression, the suspended tone in Gsus4 is C, which exists in the F chord. In the final progression, the suspended tone in Fsus4 is B, which exists in the Cmaj7.
  2. The suspended chord is typically followed by a “clean” triad version of the chord. This is called “resolving the chord.” It’s usually important because a chord suspension creates a strong sense of expectation in the listener’s musical ear. The suspension simply delays the expected triad, and so the resolution is strongly expected and can be frustrating if it’s missing.
  3. Suspensions usually happen on a strong beat. The resolution can happen on either a strong or weak beat.

Any or all of those requirements are not unbreakable rules, however, and it’s possible to cleverly avoid what’s expected and give the listener something rather strange instead. For example, though it sounds most musically satisfying to follow Gsus4 with G, you might get creative with something like C  F  Gsus4  E7/G#  Am.

Because suspensions draw a lot of attention to themselves, it’s important not to overuse them, as they can quickly become trite and obvious, due to the fact that the typical resolution is strongly expected and predictable. Even doing something creative and giving the listener what they’re not expecting can, in a way, become hackneyed and perceived as overly clever.

Although it’s technically correct to “prepare” the suspended tone by having it existing in the previous chord (as in #1 above), it’s quite common in pop music to simply jump onto a chord suspension with no preparation in the previous chord. In that case, you might find this progression to be quite acceptable: C  Am  Dsus4  D7  G7  C. The suspended tone of the Dsus4 chord, G, doesn’t exist in the Am chord.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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One Comment

  1. I think this is a great post. I like to use suspended chords when practicing modes of a major scale, but their formal application in chord progressions has eluded me. Thanks for writing that out in such a clear and concise way.

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