Sus Chords

Sus chords such as sus4 and sus2 can be used either to add inflections to major or minor chords, or as separate variants of those chords designed to create harmonic ambiguity.

Suspensions, along with most of the nonchord tones we discussed in the previous chapter, are melodic devices. But pop songs often use sus chords (which we began to discuss in the previous chapter) not primarily as melodic devices, but as ends in themselves.

Sus chords are not frequently discussed in classical music theory. When such chords occur, we usually discuss them as traditional major or minor chords with nonchord-tone embellishments. Something close to sus chords also appear in classical music as what are called quartal or quintal harmonies, which consist of stacks of fourths or fifths and sometimes end up containing the same notes as sus chords would. But these chords are different in conception and function than sus chords, and sus chords are so important in pop music that it’s worth discussing them in greater depth here even though we wouldn’t study them the same way as we would in a classical music theory class.

There are two main types of sus chords: the sus4 chord that we discussed in the previous chapter, in which we replace the third of the chord with a perfect fourth above the root …

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… and the sus2 chord, in which we replace the third of the chord with a major second above the root.

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Here, then, are the intervals involved in sus chords.

Sus4: root, perfect fourth, perfect fifth. Example: Fsus4 = F, Bb, C (remember, Bb, not B, is a perfect fourth above F)

Sus2: root, major second, perfect fifth. Example: Fsus2 = F, G, C

Quick Quiz 12.1

Name the notes of each of the following chords:

Absus4
Bsus2
Ebsus2

The Sus4

The sus4 chord is frequently used with the fifth scale degree, and will often resolve down to a standard V chord. Good examples occur throughout Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

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The song is in C# minor, and follows a i/III/VI/V progression. Before the V chord (G# major) arrives, however, Gnarls Barkley inserts a G#sus4 chord to increase our anticipation.

We can use the sus4 with other degrees of the scale as well. The first verse of the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” sits somewhere between B major and B minor, using a chain of sus4 chords that resolve to major chords to produce a descending chromatic line.

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The progression creates the following chromatic line in the guitar part.

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This series of suspended chords and resolutions helps the listener make sense of this initially odd-seeming chormatic descent.

Sus Chords Vs. Suspensions

Although the fourth in the sus4 chord is frequently used to point down by step to the third of a standard major or minor chord, sus chords are mostly distinct from melodic suspensions, which resolve down by step. In fact, the sus2 chord usually points up at the third of chord.

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So the sus2 actually doesn’t have much at all to do with suspensions as we discussed them in the last chapter. Suspensions, remember, point down, but the sus2 chord frequently points up.

You may have noticed by now that sus4 chords and sus2 chords are closely related. For example, compare the pitches of the Dsus2 chord …

D, E, A

… to those of the Asus4 chord.

A, D, E

They’re the same notes! If we hear these chords in different contexts, sometimes D might sound like the root, whereas sometimes A might. That means that sus chords, particularly when they’re not used to point at ordinary major or minor chords, possess a kind of ambiguity that major or minor chords lack.

As a result, a series of consecutive sus chords can create a modern feel that you might not be able to get from an ordinary series of major and minor chords. A good example occurs in Edie Brickell’s “What I Am,” which consists largely of sus2 chords.

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The sus2 also appears prominently in the Police’s “Message in a Bottle.”

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Each chord you see here features two pairs of perfect fifths stacked on top of one another. For example, the first chord, C#sus2, is a C#, then a G# a perfect fifth above that, and then a D# a perfect fifth above that. Police guitarist Andy Summers once explained that the verse was a deliberate attempt to avoid chords with thirds. (Notice how awkward these chords are to play on the guitar – you have to spread your left hand way out, with a large distance between your index finger and your pinky.)

5add9 Chords

You’ll sometimes see the sus2 chord the Police use above written as “5add9,” which essentially means the same thing as sus2, except that it tells the musician to play the chord as a stack of perfect fifths rather than in some other voicing.

Examples of 5add9 chords

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5add9 chords feature the same notes as sus2 chords. (For example, Dsus2 is D, E and A, while D5add9 is D, A and E.) If you label a 5add9 chord “sus2,” you won’t be wrong, and it might even be more consistent to label it that way. Pop song charts are somewhat inconsistent in their labeling of these chords, though, alternating between sus2, 5add9, and sometimes even simply “2.”

Next Chapter: Harmonizing Melodies

Quick Quiz Answers

12.1
Absus4 = Ab, Db, Eb
Bsus2 = B, C#, F#
Ebsus2 = Eb, F, Bb