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Harmonic Ambiguity and the Flexibility of Suspended Chords

     Sometimes it’s handy to have a tool that opens up your possibilities in the music composition process and this is certainly the case with harmonic ambiguity, as a compositional technique, and with suspended chords.

     In the case of the latter, these are chords whose 3rd degree was “suspended”, or moved, either to the 2nd or 4th degree of that particular chord. Because the 3rd is suspended, now the major or minor quality of the chord disappears as well, leaving us with sus2 or sus4 chords with either diminished, perfect or augmented 5ths:

Examples of suspended chords

     In this sense, not having a third degree, means that this particular chord doesn’t have its major or minor quality defined. That said, the possibilities of scales and melodies that you can use over these chords increase significantly. So, when you wish to introduce vagueness or maintain the listener in suspense as to what will come next, these are the type of chords you can resort to.

     But there are other chord formations that can also induce ambiguity, such as chords built by fourths or fifths. As said, more often than not, this ambiguity is introduced by the lack of the third in relation to the root of that chord and, because there is no clear root, these chords don’t have an impetus to resolve to any other particular chord.

     Even more so, the chord quality can be redefined depending on the existence of a bass note that may confirm or not any of the chord tones, and thus implying a different chord altogether. This happens because when we hear a harmonic structure, our brains interpret it by using the lowest note as reference:

Same quartal chord with different bass root

     In my latest compositions for the upcoming Follow No One album, I made use of the technique shown above. In the bridge section of the song, after the solo, I chose two chords that are always repeating but then I used different bass roots that in turn implied different chords. Outlined by the “tapping” in the guitar, the chosen chords are the C# sus4 and E sus2 represented in red and green, respectively:

     While using this technique, I was also able to imply chord functionality. This can be seen in the last two chords of the example shown above where using a G on the bass over the E sus2, is heard as a Gmaj7 add13 chord. This works as a chromatic approach chord to next section that begins with an F#m9. In this case, it is substituting the function of a dominant chord – similar to the sub-7 harmonic resolution one step above from the target chord; but without it being a dominant chord.

Other Ambiguities to Explore:

     In itself, a chord can also be ambiguous when it can be associated to or implies more than one tonality or mode. As an example, major or minor triads can be associated to two or more tonalities; the C major chord exists in C major, G major and F major tonalities; or a Dm belongs to C major, F major or Bb major tonalities, and so on. The fact that a chord may have multiple meanings or associations, also introduces the possibility of functional ambiguity.

     And there are other cases of harmonic ambiguity that make use of the inherent dissonant character of chords, like the diminished seventh or augmented chords. By themselves, these chords aren’t very useful at expressing a tonal center and you can resolve their dissonance by making simple chord transformations that in turn will point to different chords or tonal centers, as you can see in the following example:

Some of the possible chord transformations of a C+ chord by moving only one of the chord voicings, opening up several modulation possibilities

     These are only some of the possibilities that you can use to explore chords and harmonic ambiguities. Experiment with it so you’ll find different harmonic landscapes and new pathways for your musical expression. And remember, the best technique is the one that serves your music better!

Happy Composing!

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