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Using “sus” chords to inspire beginners

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Jan 30

sus chords

No, I’m not talking about anything ‘suss’, but rather chord “suspensions”. If you’re not familiar with suspensions, or how they can be used to inspire your students from their first or second lesson, read on…

I like to introduce triads in a student’s very first lesson or two and in some cases it’s the first thing that I do (the other is get the students improvising on the black notes while I accompany on another piano or as a duet).

Students want to start making cool-sounding music as soon as possible and chords provide one of the best opportunities to do this. Certainly, the last thing you want to begin a new student on is scales or music reading!!

So, the first thing I demonstrate is the standard root position triad played with fingers 1-3-5 with thumb on C (ie. a C major triad). I get them used to playing this with their RH, accompanied by octaves in the LH (or single notes if they are little) and always using the sustain pedal.

When they can comfortably play C, I introduce A minor (moving down from middle C, as chords always sound more lush below the middle of the piano), F and G and show them how to move between them without changing their hand position too much.

This then leads onto playing this progression as a broken chord and eventually swung so that they are now playing the accompaniment to the “Heart and Soul” version of chopsticks:

Ps. My good friend Leila Viss has some great articles about using Heart & Soul in teaching here.

When students have mastered this and we’ve been able to play it as a duet at the next lesson, I explain is that instead of always playing the middle note of a triad with their 3rd finger, they can “suspend” the 3rd of the triad by playing the note that’s under either their 4th or 2nd fingers (hence sus4 or sus2 chords).

So, if you play the notes C-F-G with fingers 1-4-5 in your RH, you are playing a “suspended 4th” chord. Likewise, if you play the notes C-D-G with fingers 1-2-5, you are playing a “suspended 2nd” in whatever key you are in (C is shown).

Suspensions, by their very nature, are designed to resolve to either the major or minor triad, and students have fun hearing this tension and resolution. Get them to try suspensions and resolutions in a few different keys before you go on.

Now for what my kids call the “Epic” sus chord progression! It’s in A minor, so get students to start by playing an Am triad with RH just below middle C, octaves A’s in LH and of course using the pedal. That is their starting position. The RH simply follows a repeating pattern played slowly:

Am sus4 x 2 / Am x 2 / Am sus2 x 2 / Am x 2

When they can play that sequence with the RH, add the LH playing A octaves in the bass. I like to get them to play one LH octave for every two chords in the RH. With the LH on A, play the full cycle of sus and minor chords in the RH.

Then move the LH down to F and repeat the same RH pattern (don’t move the RH!). Then move to D in the LH for a whole sequence and finally move up to E. I tend to change the very last two Am chords in the sequence to an E major chord in first inversion to give the progression a nice ending.

Here’s a video explanation I just put together:

I find students’ eyes light up when they hear this progression (I normally demonstrate it first) and they can wait to get into it. I reckon it is a fantastic exercise as it uses both hands and pedal, teaches students to move around the piano, to keep a steady rhythm and to articulate each finger in the RH.

You might not get through all of that in one lesson, so don’t feel you have to rush. You can get students comfortable with the “Heart and Soul” progression of triads first, then introduce sus chords the next lesson, then the ‘epic’ progression (or whatever you want to call it) after that.

There’s no right or wrong way and, of course, every student is different.

The best thing is that the above exercise naturally leads into playing chords in the RH with different bass notes. This really is the basis of a lot of cool musical progressions.

Asking a student to play any sus chord in their RH and to experiment with different bass notes in the LH uncovers some really great harmonies (and some not-so-great!).

As an example, try playing an Fsus4 chord in your RH (just below middle C, of course) and playing D flat, E flat or B flat octaves in the bass.

How cool is that?

Have you used “sus” chords in your teaching before?

How do you explore these with students – leave your thoughts below.

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Tim Topham

About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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