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What Chords Do I Have?

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(@chris-c)
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Joined: 19 years ago
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...they are not chords. Anyone writting a chord with "sus" in the name is simply making an error.

So what exactly is a chord?

According to my Grove's Dictionary of Music (Grove is pretty much the standard classical reference book) a chord is just:

"The simultaneous sounding of two or more notes".

Other sources prefer three as the minumim, and say things like:

" A chord is any collection of notes or pitches that appear simultaneously, or near-simultaneously over a period of time."

"A chord consists of three or more notes or pitches"

etc.

It looks to me as if "chord" is a widely used and accepted term that simply means a collection of notes. So is there also a narrower more specialised usage of the term that I should know?

I've seen similar debates over the word "note" which is widely used to mean both the sound and the symbol that represent it - with some people insisting that the sound be referred to with the words tone or pitch, and objecting to it being called a note, despite the fact that nobody was actually confused by the usage. Even the gardening forum I visit has people arguing over whether something is really a "dandelion" or not (a popular name that is applied to a number of different plants, depending on what part of the world you live in).

All the guitar books I have list various 'sus' 'chords', as do the on-line guitar chord sites that I've been to. It seems widely understood and accepted - which is usually the point of giving things labels. So is it just pedantry to insist otherwise or is there another meaning of "chord" that I should understand?

I do enjoy a touch of pedantry, but I like to know the full picture before I try and repeat it. Can anybody enlighten me please? :)

Cheers,

Chris


   
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(@fretsource)
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I do enjoy a touch of pedantry, but I like to know the full picture before I try and repeat it. Can anybody enlighten me please? :)

The chords that we call sus chords have been misleadingly named from a centuries old musical practice called suspension, which is a harmonic progression, rather than a single chord.

But I for one have no problem with the label 'sus'. It's convenient and widespread among guitarists. I use it freely, although I'm more careful using it around other instrumentalists.

It's like tremolo arm. It's NOT a tremolo arm - it produces vibrato not tremolo, which is a completely different thing. But I've never met anyone who calls it a vibrato bar. Like the term 'suspended' it's not accurate - but it's here to stay and it's not a problem.


   
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(@chris-c)
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Thanks mate, that's helpful. :)

I'm quite intrigued by the whole 'usage versus correctness' thing. We have one of those multi-volume Oxford English Dictionaries which gives meaning - and examples - based on historical usage, and it's fascinating to see how much the meaning of words changes over the years. In some cases words end up meaning exactly the opposite of what they started out meaning.

One instance that still bugs me a bit is "imply" and "infer". They should mean quite different things, but are commonly (mis)used to mean the same thing. A recent dictionary that I have now quotes both meanings for "infer" - recognising that its meaning is actually being shifted by usage.

Usage ultimately always wins, so I now try to cheerfully accept all the ways things are used. :D Can't afford to unnecessarily grind down what's left of the teeth... :wink:

Cheers,

Chris


   
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(@indiana_jonesin)
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Joined: 17 years ago
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Topic starter  

That's why I was writing a song with power chords at midnight...
....but you're not playing power chords.

I stand corrected. :)
I'll have to re-read this thread sometime; there's some fascinating info here, as always.

"Yes and an old guitar is all that he can afford,
when he gets up under the lights to play his thing..."-Dire Straits
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(@greybeard)
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Joined: 21 years ago
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They're add9 chords voiced without a 3rd -- which is perfectly common
That may be common usage, but, according to all the music theory, that I've ever read, an add9 should, per definition, have the third present (1, 3, 5, 9). What you advocate, as an add9, is, in fact, a 5add9 - a powerchord, with an added 9th. "It's simply a matter of definition."
However, you, later, reconsider the necessity for strict musical theory and decide to deride common usage:
It's simply a matter of definition. A suspension is a non-harmonic event over a three note series that includes a prepared dissonance,................................. It is not a chord. It never has been a chord, and no matter how many guitarists insist upon using the terminology, it never will be a chord.
You're very selective in your acceptance of music theory and common usage - like when it best suits your argument.

Chris, according to generally accepted wisdom, a chord consists of three or more notes (that's what I've always read, anyway).
A tone (pitch) is a sound, produced at a particular frequency - like 440Hz.
A note is the name given to tones. In Western music, at least, each note repeats every time the frequency of a tone doubles - 110Hz, 220Hz, 440Hz are all A notes, but discrete tones.
If you play D (4/0), D (3/7), D (1/10), you have 3 tones, but only one note - so no chord.

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
Did you know that the word "gullible" is not in any dictionary?
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(@misanthrope)
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One instance that still bugs me a bit is "imply" and "infer". They should mean quite different things, but are commonly (mis)used to mean the same thing. A recent dictionary that I have now quotes both meanings for "infer" - recognising that its meaning is actually being shifted by usage.
That puts pay to my favourite reply to "What are you inferring?" - "I'm inferring that you don't have a dictionary, however, what I was implying was...". :cry:

I won't list my pet language peeves, we'd be here all day. Pedant and proud! :wink:

ChordsAndScales.co.uk - Guitar Chord/Scale Finder/Viewer


   
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(@greybeard)
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That puts pay to my favourite reply to "What are you inferring?" - "I'm inferring that you don't have a dictionary, however, what I was implying was...". :cry:
I won't list my pet language peeves, we'd be here all day. Pedant and proud! :wink:
Ahhh, the infernal US misappropriation of the word "momentarily" is one of my pet peeves. "Momentarily" means "for a short space of time" not "after a short while".

Hoist by mine own pedantry.

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
Did you know that the word "gullible" is not in any dictionary?
Greybeard's Pages
My Articles & Reviews on GN


   
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(@chris-c)
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Chris, according to generally accepted wisdom, a chord consists of three or more notes (that's what I've always read, anyway).
A tone (pitch) is a sound, produced at a particular frequency - like 440Hz.
A note is the name given to tones. In Western music, at least, each note repeats every time the frequency of a tone doubles - 110Hz, 220Hz, 440Hz are all A notes, but discrete tones.
If you play D (4/0), D (3/7), D (1/10), you have 3 tones, but only one note - so no chord.

Thanks Graham,

I've also always thought three to be the magic number (and 'power chords' being misnamed as only having two) so I was a bit surprised by Grove's only quoting two. But I guess it just reflects that they feel it's not a 'set in concrete' thing, but a term that's used in various ways in different company.

Good info about the notes/tones/frequencies too. I'd read about the frequency divisions, and the 440hz thing - but hadn't really put it together quite as clearly, so thanks for that. :)

I liked "Hoist by mine own pedantry" too. :D Nice one... For a long while I'd pictured being "hoisted on your own petard" as being hung up on some sort of gallows thing, so it was intriguing to eventually find out that it referred to being blown up by your own explosive device - much more dramatic!! :wink:

Cheers,

Chris

PS I wonder what this song is going to turn out like? .... 8)


   
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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 21 years ago
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Some great stuff here!

When I was in school, I was taught that tones are sounds, and notes are written representations of those sounds. Outside of school, they seem to be interchangeable - its that infer/imply thing; the term 'note' commonly implies 'tone'. I try to use the terms properly, but I don't really care if others don't; I know what they mean.

I was also taught that a chord is three or more distinctly named tones, and that two distinct names simply makes an interval. Today I'll have to trot over to the library and read that Grove's entry - it is the standard reference... but the Harvard dictionary I have at hand agrees with my instructors.

The point of labels is to classify things, and if a label is widely used, it doesn't matter if it's mis-applied. I don't have a problem with sus chords; they've been widely used for 50-60 years now. They're technically chords (since they have the requisite three tones); they're just outside tertian harmony.

The pedant in me comes out with sus2 chords (or monstrosities like drop2 chords). That's because the term is widely used by guitarists and not by non-guitarists. This isn't a problem in itself - it's like regional English... if I'm talking about boots and bonnets, I mean items of clothing; a Brit using the same terms may be talking about his car.

The source of my pedantry isn't the label - it's the fact that many guitarists go farther by inventing theory to support the label, and then extrapolate this theory to cover unrelated things: "a suspended chord removes the third and puts any other note in its place, like in this Asus(b9) chord..."

The logical parallel in regional English would be a Brit insisting that carburetors are called "engine hair" because they're found directly under the bonnet. You'd draw certain conclusions about his automotive expertise.

And that's what happens when guitarists expound on sus chords, modes, drop voicings, etc. - educated musicians draw conclusions about what we know. Hence my quarrel with the use of sus2 :)

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


   
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(@chris-c)
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Today I'll have to trot over to the library and read that Grove's entry - it is the standard reference...

I should hastily point out here that my copy of The Grove Dictionary of Music is the Concise version - so us patrons in the 'cheaper seats' may have only been allowed an abridged number of notes. Maybe the richer people with the full version get three! :P

The entry in mine reads (in full):

"Chord. The simultaneous sounding of two or more notes. "

Cheers,

Chris


   
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(@kingpatzer)
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Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 2171
 

They're add9 chords voiced without a 3rd -- which is perfectly common
That may be common usage, but, according to all the music theory, that I've ever read, an add9 should, per definition, have the third present (1, 3, 5, 9). What you advocate, as an add9, is, in fact, a 5add9 - a powerchord, with an added 9th. "It's simply a matter of definition."
However, you, later, reconsider the necessity for strict musical theory and decide to deride common usage.

I should have been slightly more precise -- it's perfectly common to drop a 3rd in a guitar chord voicing and doing so doesn't present a problem from the perspective of theory as when given no specific voicing but just a chord name, the guitarist is free to choose whatever voicing they want.

So yes, what is being played is a 5add9. However, I'm assuming that what is being played is a voicing of the most easily named chord.

After all, we could try and talk about that E5add9 as some type of of F# chord too . . . though to do so would be rather convoluted and we'd be wrong to not look to a simplier explaination without reason.

So I assumed that what was being played was a voicing choice as I thought that was a simplier view. You can prefere to look at it as a 5add9 if you think that is more important than the simplification. It is more precise, but I'm not sure it's necessary. I do agree it is more precise adn therefore more correct.

Yes, I'm guilty of a simplification.
You're very selective in your acceptance of music theory and common usage - like when it best suits your argument.

I'm a pedant. I'm prefectly willing to be told I'm mistaken about a definition. I'm a big boy, I can take it.

Frankly, this is an area where theory just hasn't caught up to common practice. That's ok, but using a term that already has an application in the field of music related to harmony to apply to something else entirely is a terribly bad idea when the goal of theory is to provide a common technical vocabulary to allow for clarity in communication.

"Suspension" as it applies to the field of harmony already has a well understood definition that is non-harmonic in nature. Chords with tones already have a naming convention that is well understood and commonly used.

Yes, a chord is any three notes. That isn't the problem. I'm not saying that what's being played isn't a chord. I'm saying that a suspension isn't a chord.

I draw the line at a different place than Noteboat does. Largely, I think, because I really don't understand allowing for Sus4 chords but not Sus2's . . . what makes one completely incorrect use of a term acceptable and the other not?

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST


   
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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 21 years ago
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What makes one acceptable is the history of the usage.

If you go back about 100 years or so, there weren't any 'sus' chords at all. The sound still happened, but in the classical sense of preparation-suspension-resolution, where it's been seen for centuries. Those few publishers who labeled chords didn't label the suspension - only the chords on either side.

Then comes the 20th century, and some composers started to experiment with quartal harmonies. (The idea of quartal harmony is older than tertian harmony, but it had fallen out of favor around 1600 or so.) In particular, Scriabin played around with stacked fourths, and the sound of his "Promethius chord" drew a lot of fascination. Scriabin discussed quartal harmony in his book "The Theory of Harmony", but without establishing a structure for naming the things.

So up until about the 1940s quartal harmony was used a lot more, but without chord names. In the late 40s, there's a change - quartal harmonies start being used extensively in jazz.

As you know, jazz musicians don't typically work from scores the way classical musicians do - they work from 'head charts' that lay out the melody with a chord progression. So now these puppies needed names, and publishers used 'sus' to label them. Most of the jazz musicians of that era had decent training in classical theory, and understood that it was a the midpoint of a classical suspension.

It's in the 1970s that the suspension starts being used in pop/rock music. There are two independent origins... one comes from musicians with classical/jazz training (Keith Emerson, etc) who knew exactly what they were doing, and labeled the chords 'sus' when they wrote out charts; the other source is the untrained musicians who were adding notes to power chords; invert a C5 and you get a G4. Pop another note in there and you have a sus chord.

Because of the rise of the untrained pop/rock musician as a consumer of sheet music, publishers began labeling suspensions 'sus4', just to make it clear that the chord included a fourth. Beginning in the 70s I saw explanations in guitar books that 'sus4' replaced the third with the fourth (which is historically and harmonically correct for these chords) - but beginning in the 90s I started seeing the explanation that 'sus' replaced the third with whatever came after it. And that's trouble.

Because at this point the chord names start losing harmonic meaning. As you noted earlier, a 'sus2' voicing can be an add9 chord without a third; writing it out that way exposes the harmonic skeleton of the piece, which is what musicians in general use chord names for in the first place. Except for the guitar and piano, instrumentalists don't use chord names to play chords - they use chord names to get their bearings on a tune.

But guitarists take a different approach to chord names - they assume chord=fingering. This has given rise to the extensive use of 'sus2' in guitar charts. If the use of the chord actually has a harmonic meaning, 'sus2' isn't it - every occurance I've seen is either a simplified voicing (add9 with no third), an inversion of a harmonically correct suspension/resolution (where Csus2 should be Gsus), or an attempt to give a chord name to what is harmonically an auxilliary tone (C-Csus2-C).

There's nothing wrong with labeling a fingering; I have no problem with people calling a particular fingering by any name they like. The problem comes from using a hollow name, one that's only a fingering label.

Chord progressions are rich with information about how a song is structured; using a label to represent a fingering rather than a harmony obscures that skeleton. It may help you find a fingering on the guitar, but it detracts from what the other musicans can draw from the chart.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


   
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(@kingpatzer)
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What makes one acceptable is the history of the usage.

That sort of speaks to my point, NB.

Those Jazz guys using quartile harmonies, could have written their chords more precisely, they didn't and we started having a confusing double use of one term when there are other terms available for the same idea.

Now, guitarists, emboldened by this history, are muddying the waters even more.

Using a term about something that happens in a progression for a stand alone harmonic structure adds needless confussion and doesn't increase clarity of anything!

Theory could use some new terms for quartile and quintile harmonic structures (or we could stand to ressurrect some old ones), but in my mind "suspension" is a poor term to use in either case. It almost always is used incorrectly and almost always obscures the underlying harmonic skeleton (as you correctly point out).

It is a well understood term relative to progressions. Using it to simplify a chord name adds confussion.

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST


   
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(@fretsource)
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If the use of the chord actually has a harmonic meaning, 'sus2' isn't it - every occurance I've seen is either a simplified voicing (add9 with no third), an inversion of a harmonically correct suspension/resolution (where Csus2 should be Gsus), or an attempt to give a chord name to what is harmonically an auxilliary tone (C-Csus2-C).

But you could say exactly the same thing about sus4 chords. Every chord I've seen labeled as sus or sus 4 is either an add 11 with no 3rd, or an auxiliary tone (D-Dsus4-D) or an appogiatura seeking its natural resolution to the third. To isolate the middle chord of a suspension and call it a sus chord can't be justified theoretically or historically because, alone, it can't possibly suspend so the name is misleading. I'd say musicians like Keith Emerson didn't know what they were doing by calling them sus chords if they were being used in isolation.

However, I don't mind using the term sus among guitarists. I agree though that the danger is that people start inventing theories around it based on pseudo science. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" as they say.

BTW, looking through some of my old songs books, the earliest reference to a sus chord I could find is in a 1967 song by Donovan (of all people) and that is actually a 6 resolving to a 5.


   
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(@chris-c)
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Great posts! :D

I now have a Resolution (New Year's, not musical...) for 2007. Get serious about studying some more theory. There's a fair bit of theory that I half know, in a tatty and ragged sort of way. Time to hit the books and patch up some of the holes... :)

I'll bookmark this thread and come back once a month and see if I understand it all properly yet! :shock:


   
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