Thursday, April 5, 2012

Suspended Chords Nobody Talks About

(I originally wrote this back in June of 2010. I teach all of my students learning chord theory about these strange chords and wanted to add it to the blog to hopefully help inspire some great new music)

I'm writing this blog entry to discuss some chords that seem to be nonexistent.  When you read these upcoming chords the lower case b is representing the FLAT symbol. The numbers in parenthesis are the intervals used to make the chords in question. Or you could also say the numbers in parenthesis are the chord formulas for said chords. Here they are:

Sus b2 (1-b2-5)
Sus b2 b5 (1-b2-b5) 
Sus b2 #5 (1-b2-#5)
Sus 2 b5 (1-2-b5)
Sus 2 #5 (1-2-#5)

Sus #4 (1-#4-5)
Sus #4 #5 (1-#4-#5)
Sus 4 b5 (1-4-b5)
Sus 4 #5 (1-4-#5)

Confused? Well, I don't blame you if you are. Seems to me that you pretty much only see Sus2 and Sus4 chords. Sometimes the Sus4 can simply be written as Sus. Some of you may have heard of Sus6 chords. I argue that these are complete bologna. I'll save that argument for another blog entry.

So, perhaps you want to know what a suspended chord is? For those of you who don't know here are the chord names along with their formulas:

Sus2 (1-2-5)
Sus4 or just Sus (1-4-5)

Ok, maybe you're confused over what the heck these formulas even mean. That's fine. Here's a quick explanation:

These formulas represent intervals within a major scale. There are seven notes that comprise a major scale. When you read the 1-2-5 formula this means that you are playing the first, second, and fifth intervals (or notes) in a major scale at the same time. So, when you read the formula 1-b2-5 that means you play the first and fifth intervals (or notes) plus a FLATTED second interval. So, to put it another way, you take the 1-2-5 formula, then lower the second interval by one fret (aka: a ½ step).

What the heck is a major scale? A quick example is to follow this formula:

Pick a note. Any note! Then, follow this pattern. From the note you chose (the root note) you then move up a whole step, another whole step, one half step, a whole step, another whole step, a third whole step, and then finally one half step up to the root note again at a higher octave. In case you don't know what a whole step is, you simply go up or down 2 frets from any given note. A half step requires you to go up or down one fret from any given note. So, in conclusion with the major scale formula you can look at it like this:

W-W-H-W-W-W-H (W = whole step | H = half step)

So, hopefully that clears things up. If not, then I highly recommend signing up for my lessons :)

Back to the main point of this blog entry: nonexistent chords.

The reason why I say these chords are nonexistent is because I've only seen them in the theory books I studied way back when I first began to learn the guitar. Several books will discuss suspended chords, but only the Sus2 and Sus4. However, they're leaving out suspended chords that occur in a natural key (if you don't know what a key is just think of it as a simple major scale). Many of the chords I listed up top DO NOT occur in a natural key. You can find them in altered keys/scales such as the harmonic minor. For this blog entry we will only go over the altered suspended chords that occur naturally in a natural key.

Let's use they key of C Major for this discussion. The notes used in the key are C-D-E-F-G-A-B. No sharps or flats occur in this key.

Now, whenever you build chords you ALWAYS USE THE MAJOR SCALE. There is absolutely NO EXCEPTION to this rule. Why? Because all the sharps and flats you find in chord formulas come about when you alter the major scale. You'll see how this works as we continue to work on this subject.

The first basic chord we have in the key of C Major is a C Maj chord. The formula for a Major chord is 1-3-5. So the notes that make up a C Maj chord are C-E-G. Let's make it a Sus2 chord now. We are going to replace the third interval with the second interval. This gives us the notes C-D-G. So a Csus2 contains the notes C-D-G. We replaced the note E with the note D. To make it a Sus4 chord we now replace the middle note with the fourth interval which in this case is the note F. So the chord Csus4 contains the notes C-F-G.

The next chord we will alter is a Dm. A Dm chord formula is 1-b3-5. The notes for a Dm are D-F-A. A Dsus2 contains the notes D-E-A and a Dsus4 contains the notes D-G-A. So, another way to look at this is we took the middle note of the Dm and lowered it to the very next note in key for the Sus2. For the Sus4 we took the middle note of the Dm and raised it to the very next note in key. We did the same thing for the C Maj. Keep that idea in mind as it greatly helps when we move to the third basic chord in the key of C Major.

Em is the next basic chord in the key of C Major. The notes being used are E-G-B. So, let's make it a Sus2. Now, the notes for an Esus2 are E-F#-A. Now, wait a minute. Is that right? Sure is. Remember, we always follow the major scale formula when spelling out chords. If E is the root note and we go up to the second interval we must go up a whole step to follow the formula correctly. However, in the key of C Major THERE IS NO F#. So what do we do? We simply lower the middle note (which is G) down to the very next note in key (which is F). This gives us the notes E-F-B. So, what chord do we actually have? We have an Esus b2. That gives us the formula 1-b2-5. So, if you followed everything correctly so far you should now see how at least one of these oddball chords mentioned earlier is a REAL CHORD that does exist in a natural key.

The next weird chord in the key of C Major is an Fsus #4. The notes being used are F-B-C. If we start at the root note, F, and follow the major scale formula we see that the fourth note we land on is Bb. Bb certainly does not appear in the key of C Major. So if Bb = the fourth interval, then B = a sharped fourth interval aka: #4. Therefore we have the formula 1-#4-5 for a Sus#4 chord.

The next basic chord (which happens to be an odd one on it's own) in the key of C Major that gives us strange suspended chords is a B diminished or B dim for short. You can also use a degree symbol to abbreviate diminished even further. The chord would then look like this: B°

A diminished chord formula is 1-b3-b5. So, as you see, we can't make a normal Sus2 or Sus4 out of a diminished chord because it contains a b5. So the chords we get after altering the diminished chord into it's suspended counterparts are (in the key of C Major) Bsus b2 b5 and Bsus4 b5. This gives us the formulas 1-b2-b5 for a Sus b2 b5 and 1-4-b5 for a Sus4 b5.

To sum up the suspended chords in the key of C Major let's take a look at this list:

C Maj – Csus2 – Csus4
Dm – Dsus2 – Dsus4
Em – Esus b2 – Esus4
F Maj – Fsus2 – Fsus #4
G Maj – Gsus2 – Gsus4
Am – Asus2 – Asus4
B dim – Bsus b2 b5 – Bsus4 b5

See what I did there? I listed the basic chord first, then it's Sus2 counterpart, followed by it's Sus4 counterpart. The off color suspended chords are in bold italics.

I hope this blog entry was informative for you, as well as interesting. Music theory, for me, is a fascinating subject as it brings about all kinds of new ideas I would never have thought up on my own. Hopefully this inspires you to try some new chords and will bring about new and exciting music composed by you. Thanks for reading, and keep playing :)

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