For the past quarter century I have conducted piano teacher workshops throughout the United States and Canada. Teachers always have a lot of great questions, and one of the most frequently asked questions is "What is a jazz suspension?"
Jazz suspensions in general are bridges to somewhere, at least usually. Suspensions are chord tension-tones that, historically, have typically resolved to non-tension tones. In more recent contemporary jazz expressions, however, not all such tension- tones resolve. The musical practice of non-resolution is also evident in the world of classical music. Think of Schoenberg's twelve-tone music, for example, where the composer's goal was to achieve unrelieved tension; in other words unresolved dissonance.
This article presents the basic musical theory of suspensions in a jazz context.
A suspension is a non-harmonic tone - a tone not belonging to the chord - that often resolves to the harmonic tone. In jazz harmony a suspension usually replaces the 3rd of a major or minor triad with a major 2nd or perfect 4th above the root. The normal resolution of the suspension is to the 3rd of the triad, either major or minor. Suspensions ordinarily appear in leadsheets as any of the following chord symbols:
When the chord symbol for a suspension is not followed by a number (as in Csus), this generally indicates a sus4 - play the 4th above the root of the chord instead of the third. Occasionally a suspension will be notated as the chord name plus an Arabic numeral, omitting the sus abbreviation (C4=Csus4).
The above suspension chords are three-note chords. However, in jazz and popular music, suspensions are often played as four-note chords utilizing the minor 7th above the root of the chord. Such chords appear in leadsheets as any of the following chord symbols:
Note that the 9th scale degree is identical to the 2nd scale degree. In jazz and popular music the 2nd is used in chord symbols only when notating sus2 chords - which don't contain the 3rd - while the 9th is used with all other chords which normally contain the 3rd.
In order to get the tension-laden sound of suspensions in your ears, play the following short piece, which contains an assortment of suspension chords.
The following excerpt illustrates a more contemporary presentation of suspensions. Notice that the chords in this composition do not resolve to anything but another suspension.
In the exercise that follows, play the melody and chord symbols together, playing a left hand root position chord wherever a chord symbol appears.
The ultimate goals of reading alphabetical chord symbols at the piano are to play leadsheets and understand popular sheet music chord symbols. Leadsheets are found in "fakebooks," so called because "fake" is synonymous with "improvise" in the jazz language. What has to be "faked," or improvised, with the given melody and chord symbols are the chords (accompaniment) and melodic embellishments. A basic understanding of suspensions and their chord symbols will help pianists expand their harmonic vocabulary and broaden their repertoire.