1. What is a Sus Chord?
When I first started dabbling in music arranging, transcribing tunes and listening to the top-40 radio selections, sus4 chords were hiding in the wings, behind the curtain of the music stage . That scenario has certainly changed in a big way as suspended fourth chords, especially the dominant 7th versions, are heard in just about every song you care to listen to on TV, CD, on radio and in movie scores. They are centre stage in a big way. You can say that what is a sus chord today is different in many ways than what it used to be.
The meaning of the word “suspended” in the dictionary is:
“temporarily prevented from continuing or being in force or effect”.
It seems appropriate to look at the sus4 chord in the traditional classical way first and then spread the wings and examine its role in todays popular music.
The official explanation of musical suspension is:
“The prolongation of one or more tones of a chord into a following chord to create a temporary dissonance”.
This is certainly a true description of the way the suspended 4th harmony is treated in classical music. (Not that there aren’t exceptions to this especially by more recent composers.)
Sus4 chords are found in these 3 chord families:
- Major chords
- Minor Chords
- Dominant 7th chords
In all 3 chord types the 3rd of the chord is suspended and the fourth is used instead, but to be in due time resolved back to the third.
This suspension can be of any length (within reason) depending on tempo.
All of the above classical explanation about the sus4 chord is equally true in today’s pop music and of course many other styles.
The big difference in my view is that the resolution part, especially in the dominant 7th version and to a lesser extent in the minor sus chord, is ignored. In other words a G7sus4 harmony may last for 4 measures and not resolve but go straight to C Major or some other chord. Similarly Dm or Dm7sus4 is treated the same way. We can say that the sus4 chord has become a sound in it’s own right.
2. Sus4 Chords in Triad Form
When the sus4 sound is used in triadic harmony both 1a and 1b (classical & pop) are applicable. The difference is that the Dominant 7th version of the sus4 chord has been turned into a straight major chord without the 4th note or 7th. G7sus4 (G – C – D – F becomes Gsus4 G – C – D)
2a) Major sus4 chords
Here’s a look at some musical examples: (Let’s stay away from C-Major and be a bit more adventurous)
B sus4 = B – E – F♯ used as is or resolving to B – D♯ – F♯
A♭sus4 = A♭ – D♭ – E♭ used as is or resolving to A♭ – C – E♭
This is what they look like on the music staff including their inversions:
To hear the C(sus) sound and inversions, listen to Track 38 on the Audio Page.
For the more “schematic” minded readers you can check out my Major Chord Tree HERE.
2b) The minor sus4 chord
Dm sus4 = D – G – A used as is or resolving to D – F – A
Fm sus4 = F – B♭ – C used as is or resolving to F – A♭ – C
For a different view feel free to look at the Minor 7th Chord Tree.
Let’s look at what happens when we go past the triad shape and add a 4th, 5th, 6th or 7th note to the chord.
3. The Sus4 Chord in 4-Note or Larger Harmony
Adding the fourth or even more notes to a chord can make things more interesting but also in some cases negate the use of the suspended fourth chord as you’ll see.
3a) Major 7th sus4 chords
If you have read my Kindle e-book What Are Chords? you’ll know that any Major 7th chord is exchangeable with the 6th chord depending on where and how it is used.
Therefore we can create a say AMaj7(sus4) or a A6(sus4) like so:
A – D – E – G♯ or A – D – E – F#
Here they are on the staff with their inversions:
As you can see, some of the above examples tend to be kinda clustery, so take care how you use them.
Stepping up one more notch to 5-note harmony we then get:
AMaj9: A – D – E – G♯ – B (same as E7/A) or
A6/9: A – D – E – F♯ – B
Adding another tension to this sus4 chord, which would be the ♯11 in the Lydian Major chord, does not make any sense. An AMaj9(♯11)sus4 or A6/9(♯11)sus4 is pointless because the sus4 is the D and the ♯11 is the D♯ which creates a meaningless semi-tone clash.
To hear C Maj7(sus4), C6(sus4) and some others play Track 39 on the Audio Page.
3b) Minor 7th sus4 chords
This variety of suspended 4th harmony is very common and used a lot in modal type music. The principle is exactly the same as in the major chord except of course the sus4 takes the place of the minor 3rd instead of the major 3rd.
Let’s look at Gm7(sus4): G – C – D – F
Any further expansion of this to 5 notes by adding the 9th depends on the mode (or scale) that is being played over it. Gm7 in the keys of F & B♭allow a 9th (the note A) but in the key of E♭ the note A♭is an avoid note, so:
Gm9(sus4) = G – C – D – F – A / the same as F6/G or Dm7/G
The next step, adding the 6th note is again pointless because the 11th in our Gm example is the C which is the same as the suspended fourth.
Gm11(sus4) = G – C – D – F – A – C
To hear what m7(sus4) sounds like play Track 42.
3c) The Dominant 7th sus4 chord
The pattern to creating sus4 chords should be clear by now and there are no real surprises with the Dominant Seven variety.
F7(sus4) = F – B♭ – C – E♭
F9(sus4) = F – B♭ – C – E♭ – G / the same as Cm7/F
Going any further up the scale to ♯11 again makes no sense. The note B (♯11) would clash against the B♭ and destroy the whole point of the exercise.
Here again is a short playback of some inversions of G7(sus4) Track 41.
Or, for those who like a non-musical view of C7(sus4), have a peek at the Chord Tree HERE.
4. How To Use The Suspended Fourth Chord
In all styles of music the use of sus4 harmony adds interest, delays resolution and creates surprises.
Whatever way you use this sound it must fit in with the melody. There is no point in writing a Csus or C7(sus4) if your melody sits on the note E.
Nowadays, the sus4 chord (as mentioned above) is a quality of sound used all the time, especially the dominant version, to a lesser extent the minor ones and probably even rarer are the major suspended chords. But all have a place in songwriting and composition.
As a general rule of thumb we can say that:
G7(sus4) or Dm7/G can take the place of G7
Dm7(sus4) can be used instead of Dm7
C▵7(sus4) precedes C▵7 or C.
All those 3 examples can of course go to different chords if you wish.
Try them out, listen carefully and make sure they don’t get in the way of the melody.
5. Personalizing The Sus4 Chord in Your Songwriting and Compositions
As with all chords, it is up to you to make suspended chords your own. Some of the ways you can do that are:
- Don’t use the whole chord but leave out a note to create a special sound (instead of A7(sus4) = A – D – E – G just use A – D – G)
- Take the bass note away from the tonic. A7(sus4)/E or A7(sus4)/G make for unusual colors not necessarily for the whole duration of the sound but part of it. Using a different bass note creates a suspension of it’s own (sus inside sus)
- Put suspended sounds in unusual, unexpected places or have them followed by surprising harmonies/resolutions.
- Turn the normal sequence around, for instance: C7(sus4) to C7 to FMaj7 make it C7 followed by C7(sus4) to F6/9.
Well, here’s to hoping that this post made sus4 chords less suss for you (sorry, couldn’t resist that).
If you liked the chord tree idea you might also enjoy looking at my chord diagrams. They present another dimension of looking at scales/modes and their related harmonies. Go HERE!
For more info about this type and all other kinds of harmony including more illustrations and audio examples you can find all that in my Kindle publication called What Are Chords?