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SWAMP THANG
2013 MAR 10
UNDERSTANDING
SUS CHORDS
BY ANTON SCHWARTZ
Most of us know the definition of a sus chord: it is a dominant
chord whose major third is replaced by the perfect fourth a half
step higher.
But I encounter lots of musicians who know this definition and
cant seem to make heads or tails of it in practice. Perhaps this
post will shed some helpful light.
Look at a very simple ii-V-I cadence in the key of C:

(Note that the G7 voicing here is in fact a G9. For those of you
new to jazz, its a common practice to add upper chord tones to
voicings, and to omit the fifth, for the sake of voice leading and
overall sound.)
Listening to the chords, the sound of the D7 conveys a stable,
consonant soothing sound, whereas the G 7 conveys more of a
voyage underwaya tension that will likely resolve to the C
before long.
The transition between the D7 and the G7 amounts to exactly
two things: (1) the root moves and (2) the seventh of
the D7 resolves down a half step to the third of the G 7:
We can divide this transition into a two step process, where first
the root movement occurs, then the half step resolution:

Listen:

Dm7 to G7sus to G7

As we see, the intermediate step is a sus chord. This gives us


a useful way to view sus chords:
A sus chord is midway between the iim7 chord
and the V7 chord of a ii-V.
It has the consonant, soothing quality of the ii chord which,
unlike the V7, contains perfect fifths (between the root & fifth
and the third & seventh) and no tritones (the major third and
minor seventh of a dominant chord form a tritone). But it takes
on some of the sense of movement that a dominant chord
conveys. If a dominant chord feels like a voyage underway, then
perhaps a sus chord feels like it is preparing to embark on a
voyage. It is no coincidence that the composition in jazz that is
most closely associated with sus chords is entitled Maiden
Voyage!
A sus chord is midway between the ii and the V of a ii-V-I
progression.CLICK TO TWEET
A state of suspension
Sus stands for suspended. In Classical theory, a suspension
refers specifically to the fourthor occasionally the second
that is held over briefly from the previous chord. In classical
music and in the Tin Pan Alley jazz standards, sus chords are
almost always resolved quickly.
But in modern jazz, suspended cords can last indefinitely
without resolutionas is the case in Maiden Voyage. In such
cases, the sus chord conveys a broader sense of
suspension almost like a feeling of suspension of gravity or
suspension of time as though harmonic forces continue to be
steadily at work, but they are not resulting in any change. Once
again, the nautical metaphor seems perfect: when youre out on
the ocean, you may know that you are moving forward, and still
you may have no sense of forward progress at all, judging by
your proximity to the landmarks you see.
A sus chord is a two chord over the root of its
corresponding five chord.
That is to say, D7/G = G7sus. Any voicing for a minor seventh
chord is a voicing for a sus chord a perfect fifth lower. In fact,
whether a band plays a D7 or a G7sus is entirely up to one
musician: the bass player. Anything anyone else plays is the
same either way. That gives us a simple answer for how to
improvise over a sus chord:
Improvise over a sus chord exactly how you
would over a minor seventh chord a fourth
lower.
We can see that, case by case, any scale choice for D7 is a
great scale choice for G7sus:
Scale Dm version Relative to G

7-note scale D Dorian G Mixolydian

D minor pentatonic G sus pentatonic


Pentatonic
(D, F, G, A, C) (G, A, C, D, F)

Triad Pairs
F and G triads F and G traids
(see Weiskopf or
(built on minor 3 & fourth) (built on minor 7 & root)
Campbell books.)

Observe also that the chord tones of D11 (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11) are in
fact the 5, 7, 9, 4, 13 and root of G 13sus, respectively. Not only
do the proper scales coincide between D7 and G7sus but, in
fact, the important notes do as wellso if you emphasize the
chord tones of aD7, the results sound great over G 7sus.
Accordingly, any bebop line you might play that targets chord
tones of D7 (or D9 or D11) will sound great over G7sus (or
G9sus or G13sus). For example:

Listen to the line over D9:


Bebop Lick as Minor

And now listen to the same line over G 13sus:


Same Bebop Lick as Sus

Flattening the Ninth


What can we say about the sus9 chord, the darker version of
the sus chord? Just as we viewed the Gsus chord as midway
between the two and the five chord in a ii-V progression, we can
view the G79sus as midway between the two chord and the five
chord in a minor ii-V progression:

Listen:

Dm7b5 to G7susb9 to G7b9

Playing the third over a sus chord


Weve all learned at some point that over normal dominant
chords, the fourth is an avoid notemeaning that its fine to
use it as a passing note, but wed better not sit on for any
appreciable duration. For example, it doesnt work to use
the 11 in a dominant voicing:
However, we absolutely CAN use the third in a sus voicing. Its
a beautiful sound, akin to the D7(add 6) but over a G root: D7(add
6)/G = G7sus(add 3):

Accordingly, the major third is not an avoid note over sus


chords. We can use it to great effect in our improvisations.
This post has a sequel entitled Sus Chords Part II: Their
Uses.

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This content 2013 Anton Schwartz.
Reproduction or reposting without express written consent is
prohibited.
Feel free to link to http://antonjazz.com/2013/03/sus-chords/

Posted in:
Jazz Music

Jazz Music Theory


31 Responses
1.

Jonathan Smith says:


March 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm
Hey Anton,
Nice lesson on sus chords thanks. I just came across your
music and find myself buying your CD. Dig it!
Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


August 15, 2013 at 9:17 am
Thanks, Jonathan!

Reply

2.

sunfly says:
August 15, 2013 at 5:34 am
Great lesson thanks for your time and effort.Have a good
day.Sunfly

Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


August 15, 2013 at 9:17 am
My pleasure, Sunfly!

Reply

3.

Andrew says:
October 10, 2013 at 10:45 am
This was excellent theory, exactly what I was looking for today.
cheers.
A.
Reply

4.
Richard says:
December 25, 2013 at 11:31 am
Im probably missing something basic, but the chord you are
calling a G7 in the first example looks more like a G9?
Regardless, not a G7.

Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


December 25, 2013 at 3:34 pm
Excellent question, Richard. The chord I spelled out is a
voicing of a G7. And youre right, its also a G9, which is
just a more specific way of referring to it. G9#11,
G13b9 G7alt theyre all instances of G7 chords, and you
might play any of them when you see a G7 written in a jazz
chart, depending on the context.
Reply

hmm says:
January 9, 2014 at 1:07 pm
I wouldnt say its also a G9, it is a G9! Which is a
type of G7 chord, sure, but still. Small point really
and its a good article but I reckon it might confuse
some people, better to specify exactly what chord
youre showing especially considering that you do
utilize the presence of the 9 later on when you
flatten it.

Reply

Chris says:
December 31, 2015 at 9:00 am
This also seemed confusing to me at first,
that is until I did some more research and
determined that in Jazz the 9th is usually
added to suspended chords (1 4 5 7 9) .
This has something to do with sus 4 and
sus 2 chords being inversions of each
other. I am still confused about the
omission of the 5th in the voicing used
but this at least accounts for the use of
the 9th being assumed in the G7 chord.
This would be obvious to someone who is
fluent in, and used to paying jazz but not
to an amateur like myself or others who
Im sure clicked on this article having little
to no idea what a sus chord was.

Anton Schwartz says:


December 31, 2015 at 11:00 am
Good point, Chris & hmmI can see
where that would be confusing to people
unfamiliar. I added a qualifier in parens
after the first figure. Thanks!

5.

Todd Li says:
March 5, 2014 at 5:38 am
Anton, this was the first time I have seen such a clear
explanation of sus chords, which I have long been puzzled by.
Thank you.
Reply

6.

Philippe says:
November 11, 2014 at 10:28 am
Anton,

Call me crazy but this chord sounds good to my ears LH: 4 b7


b9. RH: 3, b13, R, #9

I know Harmony forwards and backwards and I still cant figure it


out. Im suspecting its really a Minor Major 11, b13 chord. Any
ideas?

Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


November 13, 2014 at 10:24 am
Well, the bottom four notes work fine for me a sus-add-3
chord with a 9. (I think: fifth mode of the harmonic minor.)
And the top six notes (removing just the bottom note) form
an altered voicing. But I cant really hear the 4, 3 and 9 as
coexisting in any agreeable or useful way. Anyone else
want to chime in?
Reply

7.

Kris says:
January 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm
Finally a clear explanation, been looking for one on the theory
behind it all and couldnt for the life of me find any, couldnt find
any voicings either. Found information on using them as subs but
this very clearly explains how and why they work as a sub for the
ii or the ii V , this is how more theory SHOULD be taught instead
of learn this in all 12 keys and use it here. Very much
appreciated

Reply

8.

Noelia says:
February 18, 2015 at 10:29 pm
Thanks for this lesson! Very clear and useful :)

Reply

9.

Purrple Icon says:


March 19, 2015 at 11:04 pm
I found this article very useful and actually made notes in my
piano workbook which I refer to quite often during practicing. It
would have been even more helpful however if an audio example
of how it is used in a song was included. Nevertheless good
article.

Reply

10.

Danno says:
May 13, 2015 at 7:23 am
Anton. Many thanks for this post. Im spending time each day
playing through and analyzing some tunes in my fake book and I
come across a 13 sus chord. (Bob mintzers change of mind at
letter B). If its an A13sus isnt the 11th acting as a sus already?
Why does he specify sus?
Thanks again!
Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


May 13, 2015 at 7:32 am
Good question, Danno. In an A13 chord there is not
necessarily any 11. You could voice it simply with, say, a
root, a seven above that, a third about that, and the
thirteen on top. If you have an 11 it is necessarily raised,
and if youre writing a chart and want that played, youd
better write A13(#11). So A13sus, with its natural 4, is in
fact an altogether different beast.

Reply

11. UNDERSTANDING SUS CHORDS BY ANTON


SCHWARTZ | Denis Wick Blog says:
June 5, 2015 at 1:51 pm
[] Read the original publication by Anton Schwartz here []

Reply
12.

Eyal says:
September 19, 2015 at 10:15 am
As far as I know, the A note shouldnt carry over from Dm7 to G7,
unless its not a G7 but a G9.

Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


September 20, 2015 at 5:29 am
Thanks for brining that up, Eyal. I consider any voicing of a
G9 a voicing of G7 as welljust that the descriptor G9 is
more specific than G7. I mean that in the practical sense
that any pianist who played a plain G7 (without 9s, 11s or
13s) every time they saw G7 written on a chart would be
fired right away. :)

Reply

13.
Mel Murphy says:
March 6, 2016 at 6:35 am
Thanks for the info

Reply

14.

Martin says:
April 3, 2016 at 1:36 am
Hi there great article
Could you please explain a chord such as
G sus 2 4
How does that work functionally ?
Best
Martin
Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


April 3, 2016 at 1:43 am
Im afraid Ive never seen the notation GSus2-4 chord. It
sounds like it would be the same as a G9Sus4 (aka
G9sus) chord, which is functionally the same as all the
G7sus chords I discuss here.

Reply

15.

dalem says:
May 17, 2016 at 11:19 pm
I have playing since Louis was in the kiddy lock up and I like the
way you explain things. I have had people try many times and it
just didnt sink in.
thx man
Reply

16.

jayath says:
July 18, 2016 at 12:50 am
Hey friend.
i like the way you use for explore your knowledge.
i want to know how to identify relative sustain chords for each
scale.
exg A major scale relative sus?
Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


July 18, 2016 at 3:40 am
Im sorry, Jayath, but I dont know what you mean by A
major scale relative sus. This post only deals with
dominant chords, not major chords.

Reply

17.

jayath says:
July 21, 2016 at 1:47 am
i want to know how to use suspended chords in the right way in a
song.
it means when i playing a song in which type of condition do we
use suspended chords.
Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


July 21, 2016 at 7:17 am
I wrote a whole post about that here, Jayath. Check it out.
Reply

18.

Simon says:
February 16, 2017 at 2:37 pm
Thank you. Thats a much clearer definition of sus chords than in
Mark Levines brilliant The Jazz Piano Book.
Love the definition of the susb9 as the darker version of a sus
chord. Am I right in thinking thats also called a Phrygian chord?
Reply

Anton Schwartz says:


February 16, 2017 at 3:11 pm
Phrygian is a minor scale. If you say Phrygian Chord
many people will think susb9. But strictly speaking a
Phrygian chord should have a minor third in it, whereas
suspended chords should have a major third (if any at all).
The more proper scale choice for susb9 is the fifth mode
of the harmonic minor, which is sometimes called Phrygian
Dominant because its Phrygian with its third raised. THAT
SAID, the phryg. versus susb9 distinction can be moot in
practice, because the two chords are indistinguishable if,
as is often the case, you dont include any third in the
voicing. (Whew! I hope that makes sense.) Glad you
enjoyed the post!

Reply

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