Suspended chords are cool chords for songwriters, they create intrigue, mystery and interesting sonic textures.
Why should songwriters have all the fun? Guitar players can also find many applications for these marvelous chords.
The reason why suspended chords are so popular with successful songwriters and musicians is because of the ambiguous nature of the suspended chord.
You see, when you are writing or playing a song you are storytelling. That’s the key … music is about storytelling!
Everything else that you learn about music, scales, arpeggios, chords etc., is preparing you to “tell the story”.
Before you go any further I’d like to use an analogy to help put everything in it’s proper perspective, ultimately it will save you a lot of time and effort.
Here’s my analogy … when a boxer is skipping a rope, that is part of his preparation for a boxing event, it is not boxing … it is preparation for boxing. In just the same way that a musician practices scales, that is not music, it is part of the preparation for playing music.
As we said earlier music is about storytelling … all the accumulated musical knowledge (theory) and motor skills you have developed though dedicated practice (muscle memory) should ultimately help you communicate your musical “story” to the listener.
As you know, a good movie, book or play captivates the audience immediately, you simply can’t put a good book down of change TV channels if a good movie is on!
The good writers galvanize your attention by creating intrigue, mystery and interest.
Enter the suspension chord …
Suspension chords create interest by “filling in”, they do not necessarily replace the basic chords, they are usually played when there isn’t any lyrics or when there is a number of bars of the same chord. Suspension chords are often used for introductions and endings of songs.
There are two types of suspension chords (also referred to as sustained chords), there’s the suspended 4th and the suspended 2nd chord.
The musical shorthand notation for the suspended 4th is either sus 4 or simply the number 4.
For example, “G” suspended 4th could be written as either “G sus 4” or “G4”
The musical shorthand notation for the suspended 2nd is either sus 2 or simply the number 2.
For example, “G” suspended 2nd could be written as either “G sus 2” or “G2”
Important: the suspended 4th chord can be abbreviated to simply “sus” however the suspended 2nd chord must be notated as either “sus 2” or “2”.
It would be assumed that the Gsus chord in the following example was a suspended 4th.
G /// | Gsus /// | G /// | Gsus /// ||
If I want to have the suspension chord played as a suspended 2nd I would have had to notate the chord progression in the following way.
G /// | Gsus2 /// | G /// | Gsus2 /// ||
G /// | G2 /// | G /// | G2 /// ||
What is a suspended chord?
A suspended chord is a chord where the third note of the chord is replaced by either the fourth or
second note of the scale. Hence the name suspended second where the second note replaces the third or alternatively suspended fourth where the third note is replaced by the fourth.
Here is an example in the key of “D” major.
D major scale = D,E,F#,G,A,B,C#,D
D major is spelt D, F# & A
D sus 2 is spelt D, E & A
D sus 4 is spelt D, G & A
How do you use them?
The suspended 2nd chords are passive, so they can be used in just about any situation where you want to create interest, they can even be used to replace the original major or minor chord.
The suspended 4th chord however is quite a strong chord and works best as a musical “filler” in between breaks in the melody. It also works well for introductions.
The suspended 4th chord is not recommended under the vocals as it takes the listeners attention away from the musical “story”.
What gives them their magical power?
As we mentioned earlier the suspended chord replaces the existing third note with either a second (sus 2) or fourth (sus 4). The third note of the chord is the deciding note as to whether the chord is major or minor.
Here is an example in the key of “D” major
D major chord is spelt = D, F# & A
D minor chord is spelt = D, F & A
Notice how the note “D” (the first note of the chord) and the note “A’ (the fifth note of the chord) remain the same.
The ambiguous effect created by replacing the third note with either the second or fourth note creates music with suspense and the all important musical ingredient “tension”.