Tales of suspense - the haunting intro to Don’t Dream It’s Over

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ModellistaModellista Frets: 1909
edited April 22 in Theory

I had a recent online discussion with a chap who insists suspended chords cannot exist in isolation.  It's the first I've heard of it, and it prompted this bit of writing.  There's a few on here whose opinion I respect, it would be nice to have a discussion about this.


Tales of suspense - the haunting intro to Don’t Dream It’s Over

It’s a sign of musical genius that it can embody complex concepts in a throwaway handful of chords, leaving a wake of discussion over chord theory even before the verse has arrived.

Neil Finn’s gorgeous, Chorus-tinted intro to Crowded House’s 1986 hit Don’t Dream It’s Over is a case in point.  The chords in question feature melodic movement over an Eb pedal, and are commonly termed suspensions: Ebsus2 (x68866), Eb7sus2 (x68666), Eb7sus4 (x68696).  Given suspensions’ “hanging" quality, the atmosphere of the whole section is one of expectation, possibly even a touch of desperation, to find the resolution.  But that resolution never comes. 

Indeed the introduction of the 7th along with the suspended 2nd adds even more tension.  Finally we have a 7sus4 chord, arguably even more unresolved than the rest - and then back to the first sus2.  No 3rds, no change in the pedal note, no resolution, no escape from a delicate state of discombobulation.  And then we do it all again.  Even the first two chords of the verse, while mimicking a conventional I-vi cadence, still feature no 3rds; it’s not until the third chord, the IV major, that the key signature is hinted at, and then instantly thrown into confusion again with the use of the III major, eventually resolving back to the I by way of a passing vi in ambiguous sus2 form again.

Despite the suspenseful power of this progression, we must consider the assertion, held in some academic circles, that suspensions cannot be suspensions without resolution - that is, followed by a move to the root or the 3rd.  Perhaps the origin of this idea is classical theory which describes a suspension as a continuation of one note of the previous chord of a cadence - the 5th or 7th of a I, for example, which then resolves to the 3rd or root of the IV.  The consequence of such thinking would mean that none of the chords here could be thought of as suspensions, even though they sound suspended even without resolution.  And their names would have to be changed, of course.  Ebsus2 becomes something like Eb5add9, Eb7sus2 becomes Eb7/5add9, Eb7sus4 becomes Eb7/5add11.  I will leave it to the reader to consider whether this convention is useful or simply adds confusion.

Musically, it is clear that suspensions in this case are arguably even more suspenseful when left unresolved.  A resolution to the major 3rd would sound trite and saccharine-sweet.  Theoretically, if whether a chord is a suspension or not depends upon its context, would mean 4ths could be paired with 3rds as sus4 chords - as long as the 4th disappears in the following chord.  This would also break the convention that chords only have odd-numbered extensions unless the 4th or 2nd replaces the 3rd.  As above, sus4s without 3rds couldn’t be sus4s if they aren’t followed by an obvious resolution - they would be 5th with added 9ths.  Sus chords in isolation would expire; cease to be; they would be ex-chords.  And what a shame it would be if songwriting experts were to have one less tool of suspense at their disposal.



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  • BellycasterBellycaster Frets: 4143
    Interesting, I'll look at this is a bit more depth later, but I seem to have a habit of liking Sus2 chords, on the 5th or 4th string Root and play them in a lot of places where a power chord would suffice. The Sus2 doesn't seem to beg to be resolved as much as a Sus4 chord and I just love how the Sus2 sounds.

    I must have been influenced by someone, I can only think it might be Van Halen.

    The intro to Don't Dream it's Over is pure Magic.
    "We don't want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap Holidays" Oliver Letwin 2011.
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  • pintspillerpintspiller Frets: 891
    @Modellista This person is obviosly taking a load of bollocks.
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  • ModellistaModellista Frets: 1909
    A nice chap I think, and a decent player.  But these lines stood out for me - "I have taught this to degree level for many years and I've been an examiner of the subject in numerous universities.  We can't disagree because I'm not proposing an argument or a point of view, just facts."  Ie. it's impossible for him to be wrong in his opinion.  I must say I was stumped for a response that was polite so I thought I'd open up discussion on here to see if I'm missing something.  But every source I've ever heard or can find anywhere in books and online, from Berklee College of Music downwards, is clear that sus chords don't have 3rds, that's the whole point of them, and can exist as an entity upon themselves, regardless of context.  I'm not changing that opinion any time soon.
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  • pintspillerpintspiller Frets: 891
    Maybe it's not a suspended chord if it's not resolved, and technically should have another name in this instance?
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  • ModellistaModellista Frets: 1909
    edited April 22
    ^ That is essentially the gist of what he was saying - a sus4 cannot exist on its own - it's only a sus if followed by resolution to the same chord's root or 3rd.  Honestly that's the first I've ever heard of this, and don't agree.  I can think of loads of examples, but let's consider B7sus4 to E major.  (x24252 to 022454).  A perfectly nice-sounding cadence.  His argument is the B isn't a sus4 because the 4 of B (E) doesn't resolve, it stays as E.  But the B doesn't have a 3rd (as sus don't in the normal universe) so you can't say it's a major or minor, if you can't call it a sus4 you have to call it a 5th with a 7th and 11th. So B7sus4 becomes B5add7add11.  In my opinion that's completely pointless (on the basis that sus chords are perfectly able to function harmonically without resolution to the 3rd), the chords names are ungainly and inefficient, and I can't find anyone else advocating this approach.
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  • ModellistaModellista Frets: 1909
    edited April 22
    Also re the above - if you resolved the B7sus4 to Emaj7 (022444), the 4th would resolve to the 3rd of B (Eb) but then we're in an E chord - is that a resolution or not?  The whole thing's a mess of ambiguity.
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  • ModellistaModellista Frets: 1909
    Any chance @viz could chime in?
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  • DontgiveupyourdayjobDontgiveupyourdayjob Frets: 1682
    edited April 23

    I would suggest that if it's a 'sus' chord that is being resolved to the 3rd then it would make more sense to think of it as an appoggiatura? I don't really see why it can't be thought of as a standalone 'sus' chord if you don't resolve the 2nd or 4th to the 3rd.


    *Edited to add, I love the bass line of this song, really nice one to play!

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  • vizviz Frets: 6499
    edited April 23
    Hi, yep it’s a good topic!

    Originally, the word ‘suspension’ was given to a very specific effect - within a chord progression the majority of the chord would move from one chord to next, save for one note which would be held, ‘suspended’ for a moment, and only then join its comrades in the new chord.

    So not only did the suspended note have to resolve, but also, and actually even more importantly, it had to originate from a previous chord. That’s why it was called a suspension. It wasn’t just hanging, it was left hanging. 

    Nowadays the term is used for any old chord with 2 or 4 to replace the 1 and/or 3. Doesn’t have to originate from a preceding chord, and doesn’t have to resolve. The definition of the word has basically been expanded to accommodate more meanings. 

    Just as language has developed, music has also developed, so that what was considered unstable and in need of resolution in the past is nowadays heard as a stable chord. Chords like sus4, sus2, add9, b7, maj7 are all perfectly stable and some can even be used to end a song on; this would have sounded unfinished to our ancestors’ ear(s). 
    Misogyny ... enforces sexism by punishing those who reject an inferior status for women and rewarding those who accept it. - Guitartango
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  • ModellistaModellista Frets: 1909
    ^ really appreciate that, @viz - I'm glad I was close on the money on my first assessment of the origin of this theory has come from.  Interesting that you add about the more important part of the suspension being the actual suspension - the continuation of the note from the previous chord - which my "I know everything" sparring partner failed to mention.  I might keep that in my armoury for my next conversation with him!  
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  • StuckfastStuckfast Frets: 920
    The books on classical harmony I've (tried to) read have all described suspension in exactly the terms @viz outlines, where the note is held over from the previous chord and then resolved.

    I'm guessing the newer understanding of sus chords comes more from jazz theory?
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  • vizviz Frets: 6499
    Stuckfast said:
    The books on classical harmony I've (tried to) read have all described suspension in exactly the terms @viz outlines, where the note is held over from the previous chord and then resolved.

    I'm guessing the newer understanding of sus chords comes more from jazz theory?
    Yes and even the late romantic period - Rachmaninov had some fantastic settled “sus”4s. 
    Misogyny ... enforces sexism by punishing those who reject an inferior status for women and rewarding those who accept it. - Guitartango
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  • bingefellerbingefeller Frets: 5652
    There is a 1974 Pat Metheny bootleg that has a tune called "All sus4's" on it.  Indeed the whole song is composed entirely with sus4 chords.  
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  • digitalkettledigitalkettle Frets: 508
    There is a 1974 Pat Metheny bootleg that has a tune called "All sus4's" on it.  Indeed the whole song is composed entirely with sus4 chords.  
    That sounds similar to when I solo over 'All Blues' ;)
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  • TeetonetalTeetonetal Frets: 6464
    viz said:
    Hi, yep it’s a good topic!

    Originally, the word ‘suspension’ was given to a very specific effect - within a chord progression the majority of the chord would move from one chord to next, save for one note which would be held, ‘suspended’ for a moment, and only then join its comrades in the new chord.

    So not only did the suspended note have to resolve, but also, and actually even more importantly, it had to originate from a previous chord. That’s why it was called a suspension. It wasn’t just hanging, it was left hanging. 

    Nowadays the term is used for any old chord with 2 or 4 to replace the 1 and/or 3. Doesn’t have to originate from a preceding chord, and doesn’t have to resolve. The definition of the word has basically been expanded to accommodate more meanings. 

    Just as language has developed, music has also developed, so that what was considered unstable and in need of resolution in the past is nowadays heard as a stable chord. Chords like sus4, sus2, add9, b7, maj7 are all perfectly stable and some can even be used to end a song on; this would have sounded unfinished to our ancestors’ ear(s). 
    This ^

    The guy is applying logic from one topic to another and coming up with the wrong result. 

    The topic is covered to death in Bach 4 part and 2 part harmony and A-Level music. This is a classic suspension through a chord progression. There must be a beginning, middle and end if you will. It's a characteristic and stylisation point of it's time. This suspension and resolution is crucial to get right, if you want to sound like a Bach 2 part or 4 part harmony. the suspension is setup, carries over and resolves. 

    The naming of chords is different, the sus replaces a 3rd with the 2 or 4, the tonality (major / minor) of the chord is suspended, the add 2, 9, 11, 13 etc should be in addition to a 3rd, meaning the chord retains it's tonality. In this context, the sus does not relate to the movement, but to the make up of the chord.

    You can make this stuff as clever and complex as you like if you choose to over analyse and apply the wrong rules.
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  • FuengiFuengi Frets: 2002
    Do we know or understand what is happening with the vocal in terms of notes? 

    I've tried discussing this with a couple of guitarists - possibly not the most theoretical if guys - and neither seemed to know or care what was going on vocally. 
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  • digitalkettledigitalkettle Frets: 508
    Fuengi said:
    Do we know or understand what is happening with the vocal in terms of notes? 

    I've tried discussing this with a couple of guitarists - possibly not the most theoretical if guys - and neither seemed to know or care what was going on vocally. 
    If the intro is Eb dominant, the verse moves to Eb major proper...
    First chord: Eb - the vocal implies Ebmaj7
    Second chord: Cm - the vocal implies Cmadd9
    Third chord: Ab - bit more going on here...vocal touches on the Bb note (a 9th) before ending on G (7th)...Abmaj7
    The G note holds on a bit and is resolved by becoming the root of the fourth chord which is a G7 (this chord is borrowed from the C harmonic minor scale)

    The vocal line doesn't deviate from Eb major.
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