Suspensions

What is a Suspension in Music?

A suspension in music is where a note from a chord is held whilst the other notes of the chord change to a new harmony.
The held note is discordant and clashes with the new chord and this tension is only resolved when the note moves down a degree to a note belonging to the new chord.

It is a wonderful musical effect that has been used for centuries and remains a key component of many contemporary pieces and songs.

Creating A Music Suspension

A suspension can be created when changing chords.
Have a look at these 2 examples of a chord progression:

Suspension chord progression example

The chord changes are the same in both examples.
However, in the 2nd extract the F is held and does not move down a degree to the E until the 2nd beat of the bar.
The point at which the F is held in dissonance over the new chord is called the suspension.
You can hear clearly how the F “wants” to fall to the E to resolve the dissonance:

Suspension annotated example

      Music Suspension Example

You can also hear how the suspension causes a characteristic delay in the rhythm.

The 3 Stages of A Suspension in Music

There are 3 stages involved in a musical suspension:

  1. Preparation
  2. Suspension
  3. Resolution

Let’s have a look at these stages in our worked example:

3 Stages of Suspensions Music

In the preparation, the note played is a harmony note and can be found in any part.
In our example above, the F in the soprano part is the note selected.

In the suspension, the prepared note is held as the other parts change chord.
This creates a dissonance between the held note and the new chord.

The resolution is the point at which the suspended note falls by a degree to a harmony note in the new chord.
In traditional harmony, the resolution always occurs on a weaker beat than the suspension.
For example, in 4/4 time the suspension would typically occur on the 1st beat of the bar with the resolution on beat 2.

Note: the resolution most commonly involves the suspended note moving down a degree. However, you will find that some suspensions resolve upwards – this is called a “retardation”.

Retardation example

      Retardation Example

Types of Suspensions

There are 4 main types of suspension for non-bassline notes.
They are named after the interval between the suspended note and the bass note:

4-3 Suspension

In a 4-3 suspension the interval between the suspended note and the bass note is a 4th (or compound 4th):
4-3 Suspension Music Example

      4-3 Suspension

6-5 Suspension

In a 6-5 suspension the interval between the suspended note and the bass note is a 6th (or compound 6th):
6-5 Suspension Music Example

      6-5 Suspension

7-6 Suspension

In a 7-6 suspension the interval between the suspended note and the bass note is a 7th (or compound 7th):
7-6 Suspension Music Example

      7-6 Suspension

9-8 Suspension

In a 9-8 suspension the interval between the suspended note and the bass note is a 9th (or compound 9th):
9-8 Suspension Music Example

      9-8 Suspension

You can hear clearly that some suspensions are more dissonant (clashing) than others.
The 4-3 and 6-5 suspensions tend to be quite “gentle” in their dissonance.
In contrast, the 7-6 and 9-8 suspensions can be quite “harsh” sounding.
This is very much worth considering when composing using suspensions.

It is worth noting that suspensions are easier to spot where they straddle a barline because there is a tied note. They are harder to identify when they occur in the middle of a bar as they may not have a tied note.

Suspensions in the Bass

Suspensions in the bassline are described by the interval formed with the next part above them (this would be the tenor line in 4 part harmony).
Again, there are 4 types:

Bass Suspensions

      Bass Suspensions Examples

Double Suspensions

A double suspension is where 2 notes are held whilst the other notes move to a new chord.
Here is an example of double suspensions:

Double Suspensions Music Example from Bach Prelude in F minor

      Double Suspensions in Bach Prelude

Note: it is possible to describe the above double suspensions as appoggiaturas because the preparation notes are not held, but are repeated. However, interpretations of the definition of suspensions have changed through time (see below).

You will even come across triple suspensions where 3 notes from a chord are held, but these are quite rare!

Composing Using Suspensions

Suspensions have been used in music since approximately 1400 and the “rules” for use have changed and developed.

Strict Suspensions

If you are wanting to work on composing using traditional techniques or constructing suspensions for a theory examination then you need to be aware of the following traditional rules of suspensions:

  • the preparation note should be at least as long as the suspended noted
  • the suspended note must be tied to the preparation
  • the resolution is always reached by the note moving downward
  • the resolution is always on a weaker beat

Free Suspensions

As music has developed through time, composers have “broken” all of these rules repeatedly and I would strongly encourage you to do the same!!

One good technique to try is to use a series of suspensions to create harmonic tension and rhythmic delay throughout a musical phrase.
Have a look/listen to this example piece I have written that uses this technique:
Suspended Animation Piano Piece by Ben Dunnett

      Suspended Animation

In some contemporary works composers often leave suspensions unresolved to maintain a constant dissonant sound.

Suspensions are also often found in guitar chords – the well known chord “Dsus” which leads back to a “D” chord is actually a sustained 4-3 suspension as it holds a G (an interval of a 4th) over the root D note of the chord.

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