3 Incredible Techniques with Piano Sus Chords
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As a piano student, how often to you play sus chords? If you’re like many students, perhaps not very often. In fact, it’s fairly common for piano method books to omit sus chords altogether from the harmonic landscape. Other books that include them may only make mention of them in passing. As a result, piano students frequently have little guidance about how to integrate sus chords into their vocabulary. However, in today’s Quick Tip, Jonny will walk you through traditional sus chord construction and usage. More importantly, he’ll show you how to use sus chord shapes to play beautiful contemporary chord voicings. Today’s lesson includes:
- Introduction to Piano Sus Chords
- Incredible Voicings with Sus Chord Layering
- Sus Chord Layering in a Chord Progression
Have sus chords have taken a back seat in your piano journey? If so, why not test drive some brand new sus chord applications today?
There are plenty of reasons why sus chords have gone missing in many piano method books. That’s because they are tricky to classify. First of all, sus chords are neither major nor minor. Instead, they have a more ambiguous “floating” sound. Secondly, sus chords don’t exactly fit into the category of tertian harmony—that is, chords built by stacking thirds. In classical music, a sus chord generally resolves to a tertian chord. (For example, Gsus4 typically resolves to G major or G7.) In this context, sus chords are understood as ornamentation within tertian harmony. However, in contemporary usage, sus chords don’t always resolve in the traditional sense. In fact, sus chords like G7(sus4) are frequently played with a quartal voicing.
Another challenge when discussing sus chords is that there are many different types, including sus2, sus4, dominant 7(sus4), dominant 9(sus4), dominant 13(sus4), dominant7(sus4)♭9 and so on. By now you can probably see that sus chords are somewhat of a “black hole” topic.
Nonetheless, sus chords create beautifully rich harmonic colors worthy of study and comprehension. Therefore, today’s lesson aims to provide practical application on how to apply piano sus chord shapes in everyday situations.
Let’s begin with a simple definition.
Sus chords are a triad or 7th chord in which the 3rd of the chord is replaced by either the 4th or the 2nd.
Usually, the next question students ask is, “what does ‘sus’ mean?” That’s a great question…“sus” is short for “suspended.” In fact, the adjective suspended refers to whichever note is replacing the 3rd. For example, Gsus4 has a suspended 4th, whereas Gsus2 has a suspended 2nd. For many, this seems like a strange way to describe a chord’s construction. However, a bit of historical context sheds some light on the issue. In particular, sus chords come from a baroque ornamentation technique called a suspension.
A traditional suspension in music contains three elements: (1) a preparation note, (2) a suspended note, and (3) a note of resolution. The suspended note itself is a dissonance that occurs a strong beat. The note of preparation is the same pitch as the suspended note, but it occurs in the context of a consonant interval. In fact, the preparation note is often tied to the suspended note as if to “hang on to” or “suspend over from” the previous chord. Finally, the suspended note moves to a consonant note of resolution by downward stepwise motion.
The New Harvard Dictionary of Music summarizes that the initial attack of a suspension is a consonance which is “converted to a dissonance as a result of motion in another voice.”
In the study of counterpoint, a suspension that resolves upward is sometimes called a retardation. In modern contexts, this is comparable to a sus2 chord resolving to a triad with the same root. For example, G(sus2) resolving to G major. This usage of piano sus chords creates beautiful movement. In fact, this gesture is featured prominently in the intro and accompaniment to Lady Gaga’s memorable mega hit “I’ll Never Love Again” from the motion picture A Star is Born. Notice the movement from G(sus2) to G(add2) in the notation below.
“I’ll Never Love Again” (2018)
Now that you have an understanding of piano sus chords in general, let’s explore how to use these shapes to create beautiful modern sounds with a technique Jonny calls Sus Chord Layering.
The examples in the next section are from the lesson sheet that accompanies this Quick Tip. In fact, the entire lesson sheet is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose the lesson material to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
So far we have discussed traditional usage of sus chords in classical and popular music genres. However, there is another completely different way to integrate sus chords shapes into our playing. In fact, we can play sus chord shapes in our right hand in situations when the harmony isn’t actually a sus chord! By layering sus chord shapes over a completely different chord, we wind up with beautiful, contemporary-sounding major, minor and dominant chord voicings.
Who doesn’t love the sound of beautiful minor chords on piano? Well, the Sus Chord Layering technique is your secret to easily get incredible minor chord sounds. Simply play the root of the minor chord in your left hand while layering a sus2 chord shape in your right hand on the ♭3rd of the minor chord.
Sus Chord Layering Trick for Minor Chords: play a sus2 shape on the ♭3rd.
For example, to get a contemporary sounding C minor chord, play the note C in your left hand while playing an E♭sus2 in your right hand. This gives you the notes C–E♭–F–B♭. The proper name for this chord is “C minor 11” and the chord symbol is expressed as Cm11. However, the notes in your right can also be inverted as F–B♭–E♭ (a quartal shape) or B♭–E♭–F (a sus4 shape). Therefore, you can also think of the sus layering trick for minor chords as playing a sus4 chord on the ♭7. Both sus chord layering methods for minor chords are shown in the example below.
Example of Minor Chord Transformation
So far, we’ve learned how to layer sus chords on piano to create contemporary minor chord voicings. Now, let’s examine how this technique works in a musical context. We’ll use the following chord progression which features all minor chords: Am→Em→Gm→Dm. To begin with, we’ll just play triads.
The next step is to identify the appropriate sus chord to layer over each minor chord. Remember, we’ll play the root in the left hand and we’ll play a sus2 chord on the ♭3 in the right hand. The diagram below illustrates this mental process.
Once you have completed the step above, you can use common piano arranging techniques to come up with the final product shown below. Notice that the left hand now contains either root + 5th or root + 3rd for a fuller sound. Also, the right hand now features better voice leading. For example, in the first measure, our sus chord shapes for Am11 and Em11 contain two common tones—the notes D and G. Keeping these common tones in the same octave improves the overall sound. Therefore, the 2nd chord in each measure features a quartal shape to retain the common tones.
What a great sound! In the next section, we’ll discover additional beautiful piano voicings by layering sus chord shapes over major chords.
The Sus Chord Layering technique can also be used to create beautiful major chord voicings. To get started, simply play the root + 5th of the major chord in your left hand while layering a sus2 chord shape in your right hand on the 6th of the major chord.
Sus Chord Layering Trick for Major Chords: play a sus2 shape on the 6th.
Let’s try to use this technique to create a sweet-sounding C major voicing. First, we’ll play the notes C and G in the left hand. Secondly, we’ll need to determine which note is the 6th of C. To do this, simply identify the sixth note of the C major scale. The correct note is A. Therefore, we’ll play an Asus2 (A–B–E) in the right hand. All together we have the notes C–G–A–B–E. This name of this chord is “C major 13,” and the chord symbol is Cmaj13 or C▵13. Keep in mind, the notes of Asus2 can also be inverted into a quartal shape (B–E–A) or a sus4 shape (E–A–B). Therefore, you can also think of the sus layering trick for major chords as playing a sus4 chord on the 3rd. Here are both Sus Chord Layering methods for C▵13.
Example of Major Chord Transformation
Let’s examine how the Sus Chord Layering technique can be used to transform major chords in a musical context. We’ll use the following chord progression: C→F→B♭→E♭. To begin with, let’s listen to these chords as triads.
The next step is to identify the appropriate sus chord to layer over each major chord. Remember, we’ll play the root + 5th in the left hand and we’ll play a sus2 chord on the 6th in the right hand. The diagram below illustrates this process.
As a final step, look for a voicing solution that retains common tones in the same octave. For example, in the first measure, our sus chord shapes for C major and F major contain two common tones—the notes A and E. Therefore, we’ll use an Asus2 shape over C major and we’ll invert the Dsus2 into an Asus4 shape (the exact same notes) to play over F major. Here is the final transformation.
Wow, that is an incredible transformation from the basic major triads! If you like this sound, then you’ll love our course on Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2).
Next, we’ll examine how to use Sus Chord Layering for dominant chords.
Now, let’s use Sus Chord Layering to create some crunchy altered dominant chord voicings. For this voicing construction, we’ll play the root + 3rd of the dominant chord in our left hand while layering a sus2 chord shape in our right hand on the ♭6th.
Sus Chord Layering Trick for Dominant Chords: play a sus2 shape on the ♭6th.
Let’s try this technique on a C7 chord. First, we’ll play a root + 3rd chord shell in our left hand. The next step is to identify which note is the ♭6 of C7. Begin by identifying a major 6th interval from the root, and then simply lower it by a ½ step. For example, a major 6th above the root C is the note A. Therefore , the ♭6 is the note A♭. Finally, we need to build a sus2 chord on this note. As a result, the sus chord we will layer over C7 is an A♭sus2 (A♭–B♭–E♭). Altogether, we have the notes C–E–A♭–B♭–E♭. The symbol for this chord is C7(♯9♭13).
Remember, the right hand notes can also be arranged in the order B♭–E♭–A♭ (a quartal shape) or E♭–A♭–B♭ (a sus4 shape). Therefore, you can also think of the sus layering trick for dominant chords as playing a sus4 chord on the ♭3rd. Here are both Sus Chord Layering methods for C7(♯9♭13).
Example of Dominant Chord Transformation
Let’s examine how the Sus Chord Layering technique can be used to transform dominant chords in a musical context. We’ll use the following chord progression: C7→F7→D7→G7. To begin with, let’s listen to these dominant 7th chords in root position.
The next step is to identify the appropriate sus chord to layer over each dominant chord. Remember, we’ll play the root + 3rd in the left hand and we’ll play a sus2 chord on the ♭6th in the right hand. The diagram below illustrates this process.
Finally, we want arrange our right hand shapes to transition from chord-to-chord with smooth voice leading. Notice that the sus chords that we are layering on C7 (A♭–B♭–E♭) and F7 (D♭–E♭–A♭) have two common tones—A♭ and E♭. For the best possible voice leading, we want to retain these notes in the same octave as we change chords. Therefore, in the example below, the C7(♯9♭13) features a quartal shape (B♭–E♭–A♭) that transitions smoothly to F7(♯9♭13) with a sus2 shape (D♭–E♭–A♭). Likewise, the second measure follows the same voicing application. Here is the final transformation.
Now those are some crunchy dominant chords. If you want to learn even more altered dominant techniques, check out the following courses from our library:
For our final exercise, we’ll combine all three layering techniques on a progression containing major, minor and dominant chords. For instance, here is a chord progression in C major that uses only diatonic chords.
Using the techniques from today’s lesson, we can transform the chords in this progression to a beautiful contemporary piano sound. Check it out:
Congratulations, you have completed today’s Quick Tip. If you enjoyed this lesson, then you’ll love the following resources:
- What a Wonderful World—Contemporary Piano (Level 2)
- Danny Boy (Levels 1 & 2, Level 3)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Pop Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder (Level 2)
- Rootless Voicings–Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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