Building Additions (and Suspensions)

After learning about triads and how we use them to “build” chords, most of the other stuff is pretty mundane, which is probably why it causes no end of argument among people. Today we’ll look at how chords other than our four basic ones (major, minor, augmented and diminished) are created. As we will be taking time later this year to examine many of these chords individually, you can consider today an “introduction,” if you will. In the case of some of the chords, it will actually be more of a second visitation!

But first, last week’s answers:

  1. a) major
    b) minor
    c) minor
    d) major
    e) minor
    f) major
  2. a) C#, E, G#
    b) F#, A#, C#
    c) E, G#, C (or B#, if you prefer)
    d) A, C, Eb
    e) G, B, D#
    f) C, E, G#
    g) B, D#, F#
    h) Bb, Db, F
    i) D, F, A
    j) F, Ab, B (or Cb, if you prefer)
    k) G#, C, D#
    l) Eb, G, Bb
    m) C, Eb, Gb

Taking The Fifth

Hate to do this to you good folks, but we’ll need to have a scale with which to form some examples and (well, you know the drill by now!)…

C major scale

As we’ve discussed before, a chord formed from a triad will consist of the I, III and V of any given scale. As we learned last week, the particular intervals of the third (that is, whether they be major or minor thirds) are what will determine which of our four basic chords we have.

In the case of the major and the minor chords (being the two we use most frequently), the “key” note is the third. Since the root and the fifth are the same in any given major or minor chord, this makes perfect sense. In a C major chord, the three notes are C, E and G. In C minor, the notes are C, Eb and G. In the article Happy New Ear, we went over this pretty well. There is quite a distinction between the sound of a major chord and its namesake minor.

And this is a good thing because we usually define the tonality of any given piece of music in terms of its key. Teach Your Children is in D major. Have A Cigar is in E minor. This sense of tonality is, not to put too much importance on it or anything, fairly vital to how we learn to play music, write music and analyze music.

The guitar, like many polyphonic instruments (any instrument capable of sounding two or more separate notes at a time), is quite adept at masking tonality. In Scales Within Scales we briefly touched upon what I called “neutered chords.” These are chords that are made up of just the roots and fifths – there are no thirds. These are the mainstay of many a rock or metal guitarist. Here are a few examples:

Power chords

I’ve always found it incredibly amusing that the “common” name given to these ambiguous voicings is “power chords.” Now there’s a term of modern arrogance if there ever was one…

Technically, writers will designate these chords as “whatever 5” or “such and such (no 3rd).” I’m sure you’ve all run into these before.

Up In The Air

Something else you’ve all run into before (and we discussed in Multiple Personality Disorder) is the “suspended chord.” A suspended chord is created when we replace the third in the triad with the fourth. Occasionally one may use the second and sometimes people use both. Here’s the example with which the majority of you are most familiar:

D suspended

Here the third (F#) is replaced by either the fourth (the G in the Dsus4) or the second (the E in the Dsus2). This chord is typically used in passing, going from one point to another. It rarely serves any other purpose than to just liven things up a bit or supporting a melody line.

It has become standard practice to assume that any chord marked “sus” refers to the use of the fourth, but as we’ll later discuss, that’s not always a valid assumption.

By the way, here’s your first homework problem and I’ll admit it’s not truly a fair question. Here are five suspended chords taken right from a standard guitar chord chart. And I’ll pretty much guarantee that these are how most of us learned them. However, two of them are actually not suspended chords, at least not by the definition in virtually every textbook on theory. Which two are they?

Suspended chords

For those of you who picked C and G, congratulations. No more homework for you this week! For those of you who didn’t, the key to the definition is that the fourth replaces the third. Both the C and G chords carry the third on two separate strings. In our examples the Csus has an E note on the open E (1st) string, while the Gsus sports a B note on the second fret of the A (5th) string. But, just to prove I’m a good sport, no homework for you either. As I said, it was a tricky question. And it gets even trickier as we move onward.

Sixes And Sevens And Nines (oh my!)

Most of the other chords you might encounter involving adding an additional note (or notes) to your basic triad. This means, obviously, that you will have a chord made up of at least four, and possibly more, notes. First, Let’s expand our C major scale a bit:

C major scale expanded

The sixth chord of any key is created by adding the note at the sixth interval from the root to the entire triad. You are not replacing anything, you are building onto the original structure. If we look at our C major scale, you can see that a C6 chord would consist of C, E, G and A. Similarly, a G6 would have the G, B, D and E notes.

Seventh chords we covered fairly well in Happy New Ear. If there’s any real trick to them, it’s in remembering that whenever you see any chord with just the “7” designation, it means to add the minor seventh interval. Only use the major seventh when it specifically calls for it by name with the “maj7” designation.

When we get into ninths, elevenths and thirteenths, things begin to get both interesting and confusing at the same time. For the sake of not overworking our already overworked editor (and esteemed webmaster), I’m going to gloss over these for the time being. The most important thing for you to remember right now is that each of these chords is dependent upon its predecessor for its creation. You cannot have a ninth without using the seventh (and the minor seventh, at that), you cannot have the eleventh without both the seventh and the ninth and so on. If you look at this in notation, it might make a little more sense:

C chords

You can see why I called them “stackables” last time out. All you have to do is keep adding on every other note until you run out of space…

Another important thing to note is that the “m” designation for “minor” (should) always refer to the original triad and not to the numbered interval. Thus an Am9, for example, would be your A minor triad (A, C, E) with the minor 7th (G) and finally the 9th (B) tacked on.

Finally, you can also simply “add” a note. Really. C (add9) would be C, E, G and D. Note that this is different from Csus2 in that the D does not replace the third (E). As the name states, we simply throw another note (or however many are named) onto the pile.

The Name Game

And this is how it all becomes very confusing. Here are four notes – A, C, E and G. What chord is it? The way I’ve written it out might make you think that it is an Am7. That certainly works. But how about C6? We’ve already done that one, haven’t we? C, E, G and A. Yes, that works as well. But we can also go overboard – say, Gsus4sus2 (add 6). You’re right, there’s no D to serve as the fifth, but we’ve seen notes dropped out of chords before. We could always call it Gsus4sus2 (no 5)(add 6). Not to mince around or anything…

The point is that a big part of what a chord is named depends on what it is being used for. You may not know it, but context is a vital part of any chord. I’ve told you before but it really needs repeating. Music is motion. Melodies and chord progressions move from one point to another and that movement helps us to define matters. Musicians and songwriters should be constantly aware of the purpose of a chord pattern, of the function that a particular chord can serve in a song. “Sounding good” is always nice, but believe it or not there are reasons why certain progressions “sound good.”

We will be examining all of our chords individually at some point this fall/winter. This will include using them in songwriting exercises as well as looking at how they have been used in the past by other songwriters. I would also recommend that, in your spare time, you pick a chord, any chord, and write out its component notes. You’re riding your car/bus/train to work/school/home and you either do it in your head or on a piece of paper (but not if you’re driving!!!). This kind of practice will help you immeasurably, especially when we get to working on scales and leads.

As always, feel free to write me with any questions, comments, concerns or topics that you’d like to see covered in the future. Email me directly at [email protected] or just drop a line in at the Guitar Forums.

Until next week…


More in this series on Chord Theory