In a previous post called “Understanding Sus Chords” I discussed sus chords—what they are and how to think of them. In this one we’ll look at their uses in songs.
Sus Chord Use #1:
To accommodate the melody
When you’re writing a song, you have to juggle numerous constraints at once.
On the one hand, you want to create a melody that flows nicely.
On the other, the harmony has to move in a natural arc, so as to peak and resolve at times that will make sense to the listener. Sometimes these constraints can be at odds. One common example: the melody note wants to be the root of the key the song is in exactly when the harmony is almost—but not quite—ready to make its final resolution to the tonic chord.
When the harmony of a song calls for a key’s dominant (V7) chord but the melody note needs to be the tonic of the key, the dominant chord must be a sus chord. Otherwise, the melody is the fourth over a dominant chord—not a winning sound.
Have a look at these two bars from “Blue Moon” and observe how the B7sus chord is necessary to harmonize with the E in the melody:
Here are several classic examples of the same phenomenon:
- My Foolish Heart (end of melody)
- When The Saints Go Marching In (end of melody)
- Nice Work If You Can Get It (end of each A section)
- Blue Moon (end of each A section)
- I Mean You (end of each A section)
- Someone to Watch Over Me (end of each A section)
- Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (the high B over F7sus)
- I Should Care (bars 1 & 3 of each A section)
You might wonder whether it would have been easy to just adjust these melodies to accommodate a normal (non-sus) dominant chord. If so… try it! In each example above, replace the sus chord with a normal dominant chord. Accordingly, take the melody note in each example that represents the four of that chord and change it to the major third or the fifth. Doesn’t work as well, does it?
Sus Chord Use #2:
To Convey Emotion
As I discussed in the previous sus chords post, sus chords have a particular unresolved sound to them. Depending on context, some other words we might associate with it are etherial, anticipatory, profound, open, powerful.
Here are a few songs that capture the etherial, floaty, profound quality:
- Some Other Time (Leonard Bernstein)- bars 2, 4, 6 of each A section.
- Maiden Voyage (Herbie Hancock) – all but the second half of the bridge
- Naima (John Coltrane) – first chord of each A section
- Eighty-One (Ron Carter) – sus chords throughout
Listen to a clip of Maiden Voyage.
The chords you hear are D7sus | F7sus | D7sus | F7sus | E7sus :
Here are a few songs that capture the anticipatory, suspense-building quality of sus chords:
- In Your Own Sweet Way (Miles Davis version of the Brubeck song) – 8-measure interlude between choruses
- Bittersweet (Sam Jones) – the descending dominant chords of the bridge
- Ignominy (Eddie Harris) – the whole song alternates sus with non-sus except for the last four measures.
Listen to this intro to a Stanley Turrentine version of Miles Davis’ tune “Walkin’” for its sense of anticipation:
Lastly, sus chords can convey great power. (For a sense of why, consider that rock guitar “power chords” consist solely of perfect intervals—the perfect fifth and its inversion, the perfect fourth. Likewise, basic sus chords are made only of perfect intervals: the four is a fourth above the root and the minor 7 is a fourth above the four. The fifth, if present, can be considered a fourth below the root.)
Here are some examples of songs that use sus chords to covey power:
- Passion Dance (McCoy Tyner) – the whole A section is F7sus.
- Red Clay (Freddie Hubbard) – sus chords and minor 11 chords throughout. (The latter, like sus chords, have the prominent four and minor seven, but a minor third instead of a major third in the sound.)
Here’s a clip of “Passion Dance” vamping on F7sus:
And, for good measure, here’s a clip of composition of my own that highlights the force of sus chords. The piece is “Don’t Ask” from my CD The Slow Lane:
The four bar chord sequence you hear, which repeats four times in the clip, is B7sus | D7sus | E7sus | F7sus.
Sus Chord Use #3:
As a Passing Tension
As we saw in my previous sus chords post, a sus chord is conceptually midway between the ii7 chord and the V7 chord of a ii-V-I progression; it has the same root as the V7 chord, but the rest of it is identical to the ii7 chord. Accordingly, it has many uses in situations that could otherwise call for simpler V-I or ii-V-I progressions…
We already saw in the first section, above, many examples of a sus chord replacing the V7 chord in a ii-V.
A sus chord can also be used in addition to a normal dominant chord, immediately preceding it. The use of V7sus → V7 is so common as to have a special notation, V7sus4-3, which actually refers to the two chords played in sequence, as if to say, “play the sus chord and then resolve the 4 to the major 3. Here’s an example of its use in The Standards Real Book by Chuck Sher, from the chart to “Someone to Watch Over Me” (note there is an E major key signature, not pictured):
This is equivalent to writing:
In this example the sus chord is needed to harmonize with the melody (the E would clash with a normal B7), but there are many instances where it is not, and it is simply added for dramatic effect. Here’s an example from Chuck Sher’s The New Real Book (vol. I), of Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell”:
The key melody notes in the second measure are A and G because those are the ones that are accented, falling on the down beats. So a C13 chord could have worked fine for the whole measure, in that there would have been no harmonic clash. The splitting the measure into sus and non-sus adds harmonic motion, with the F of the C13sus resolving to E.
Note the choice to make the dominant chord following the sus chord a 9 chord. It’s a common choice that further distinguishes the non-sus chord from the sus chord and allows for nice voice leading:
A plain 9 could have worked fine in the C13 chord. Instead, the gradual movement of the D in the C13sus to the D in the C139 to the C in the F7 gives a more refined effect.
Chuck Sher has written the added sus chord into the chart but in cases like this, where the sus chord just adds an extra step of chordal motion and is not mandated by the melody, it’s normally just added at the discretion of the musicians and not notated.
Using Sus Chords on the Fly
There are many ways we can add sus chords when we perform a melody or improvise over chord changes in order to create extra motion. Let’s look at a few, starting with the one we just saw…
| V7 | ⇢ | V7sus V7 |
This is the “If I Were a Bell” example we just looked at—replacing a dominant chord by a sus chord followed by a dominant chord, each lasting half as long.
Another example: use it over the bridge to rhythm changes (“I Got Rhythm”). Here’s the normal bridge:
Instead you can increase the sense of movement and urgency by playing it this way:
| ii7 | V7 | ⇢ | ii7 | V7sus V7 |
This is just a special case of the one above—when the substitution is preceded by a ii chord—but it’s so common that it’s worth mentioning.
For instance, you might use it in the last four bars of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are” or Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” or or Marks & Simons’ “All of Me” or Erroll Garner’s “Misty” or Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A Train”… or a thousand others.
| V7 | ⇢ | V7sus |
A dominant chord can also be entirely replaced with a sus chord. This often gives a more modern feel than if it is only partially replaced, as above… because the sus chord lasts twice as long and also because the lack of movement makes the chord feel less like a ii-V progression and somewhat more like a static sus sound, which is modern device (more about that below).
To see what I mean, try playing a standard I-IV-V blues using only sus chords instead of dominant chords. Here’s an example:
| ii7 | V7 | ⇢ | V7sus | V7 |
Lastly, the ii7 chord of a ii-V can be replaced with a V7sus chord. Remember that the only difference between these two chords is the bass note (see part I). So this substitution is tantamount to the bass player deciding—perhaps unilaterally—to play the V during the whole ii-V. If he/she decides to actually pedal on the V, which is to say, to play only the root of the V chord, the effect can be strong.
For example, the bridge to “All The Things You Are” is normally:
| Am7 | D7 | G | G | F#m7(5) | B7(9) | E | C7alt |
If the bass player pedals on D for the first four bars and B for the next three, this becomes:
| D7sus | D7 | G/D | G/D | B7sus9 | B7(9) | E/B | C7alt |
(Note that these two audio examples are identical except for what the bass is playing.)
Classic & Modern uses of Sus Chords
If we take stock of all the uses of sus chords we’ve seen, we see that they fit somewhat neatly into two categories. On the one hand are the uses in standards (“My Foolish Heart,” “I Should Care,” “If I Were a Bell,” etc.)
On the other are uses that sounds decidely more modern (“Maiden Voyage,” “Naima,” “Red Clay,” etc.)
What distinguishes the two uses?
In all the classic examples the sus chords do not last long, and they all resolve down a fifth. By contrast, the modern examples have sus chords that can last for multiple measures and generally don’t give the satisfaction of a classic resolution.
The same holds true of normal (non-sus) dominant chords. Normal dominant chords have a tension caused by the tritone interval formed by their third and seventh. In the world of the Great American Songbook, that tension always wants to resolve. When that tension is used as a constant state of affairs, not to be resolved, it gives rise to a bluesiness that’s characteristic of rock, blues and funk rather than the old standards.
Sus chords, lacking a tritone, don’t have the same tension as normal dominant chords. But their sound does have an inherent “unresolvedness” that, likewise, seeks resolution in the older uses but not in the modern vocabulary. Whereas non-resolving dominant chords come off as bluesy, non-resolving sus chords sound less “down & dirty” and more refined. As we’ve seen above, this can be in ways that are subtle and etherial or ways that are quite powerful.
We can say that the classic uses of sus chords are dynamic whereas the modern uses are static. For an in-depth discussion of dynamic and static chords, check out my recent blog post titled Dynamic & Static Chords.