Understanding music can be difficult, especially for those without classical training, or who do not possess the ability to read music.
There are countless musical terms that can seem daunting to learn and can prove disheartening to those looking to learn everything they need to know.
Such terms can refer to specific playing styles or playing techniques that are steeped in musical theory – with one example being the term ‘suspended chords’.
But what exactly is a ‘suspended chord’, and what benefit do they have within music?
What Is A Suspended Chord?
Within music, a suspended chord is a musical chord wherein the major or minor third is replaced by a ‘perfect fourth’ (sometimes known as a ‘major second’).
This creates an ‘open’ sound, with a sense of dissonance (or ‘harshness’) between the fourth and fifth chords.
This can create very interesting feelings for the listener, and as humans, our brains do not know how to properly process this interval in what would seem like a natural progression of chords, leading to a sense of anticipation or atmosphere within the middle of a piece of music.
What Are Major/Minor Thirds?
In music, a ‘third’ is an interval or pause consisting of various staff positions – that is, positions along the five-line framework upon which musical notes are written.
A minor third consists of three staff positions, while the major third consists of a third that spans four semitones – that is, a half step, or halftone, the smallest musical interval, and often seen as a bridge between major notes.
What Is A Perfect Fourth?
In written music, a ‘fourth’ is an interval consisting of four staff positions along the framework. A perfect fourth is a term used to describe a fourth that spans five semitones – for example, C to F on piano.
Types Of Suspended Chords
Within contemporary music, there are two commonly used suspended chords: sus2 and sus4 chords.
Within musical compositions, sus2 chords consist of:
D (root) – E (2nd scale degree, the suspended note) – A (perfect fifth).
Alternatively, sus4 chords consist of:
D (root) – G (4th scale degree, the suspended note) – A (fifth scale degree).
What Are Suspended Chords Used For?
Within music, suspended chords have many uses when it comes to creating specific sounds, tones, and moods within a piece of music.
To Make Us Wait
Often within music, suspended chords are used to create a slight lull or a sense of suspense that leaves us waiting for the next chord.
While unconventional as far as traditional songwriting goes, this can be used within certain types of music to create atmosphere, and tension within the timing and ‘storytelling’ of the song, or to give a slight reprieve before a larger breakdown.
To Create Space
Sometimes in music, it is also important to create a sense of space, especially in the interval between two distinct sections of a song.
This can be good for creating definitions between two different sections, as well as to leave us wanting more.
As mentioned above, this works by tricking our brains, letting us follow the perfect fourth, but then withholding what seems like the next logical note, before the next set of chords come in.
This can be useful within more complex pieces of music, particularly the more abstract ones where distinct musical components are featured within the song.
To Break The Spell
Repetitive chords, on a sonic level, can almost create a sense of hypnotism for the ears of the listener, almost like a perpetual motion machine that keeps chugging along at the same speed and tempo.
With suspended chords, this creates a jarring sensation for the brain, breaking us out of our sonic spell momentarily, before hooking us once more with the repetition of the chords.
When Can They Be Used?
Strictly speaking, you can use suspended chords whenever you want to – as is the nature of the creative practice – but from a music theory standpoint, you can use them anywhere within the song, except for the last chord.
This is because there needs to be an interval, or bridge, to the next chord progression, and if the song just ends, then this isn’t suspended.
Suspended chords are unstable by their very nature, and can only be resolved when the chord is completed. If they are used at the end of the song, then the song will feel unfinished.
Of course, this could be a creative choice you want to make, in which case you should pursue that ending – however, from a purely ‘by the book’ standpoint, a suspended chord, by definition, needs to be resolved.
In my trailer music, I would almost always use a suspended chord at the end of an act to hold the tension and to emphasize the resolve when the next act would come in.
What Are Some Well-Known Examples?
Of course, the way these chords are applied differs, depending on whether they are included within popular music, or other more classical styles.
Within popular music, some well-known examples include ‘Pinball Wizard’ by The Who, ‘Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police, and ‘Champagne Supernova’ by Oasis.
Surprisingly, there are also countless examples in classical music as well, with some famous instances of suspended chords being seen in the opening chords of the prelude to Wagner’s final opera ‘Parsifal’, and the piano postlude to the song ‘Ich Grolle Nicht’ from Robert Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’.
And there we have it, everything you need to know about suspended chords, and their application within the creation of musical arrangements.
Suspended chords have many uses within musical arrangements, and can be used to expertly elicit certain responses from the listeners – either through the creation of atmosphere, and suspense, or by simply keeping them waiting.
So, if you are looking for a way to add this kind of feeling to the rhythm of your own music, then why not employ some of these chords? You’ll be amazed at just what you can achieve!