Using “sus” chords to inspire beginners

Using “sus” chords to inspire beginners

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.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

 feeling inspired? 

sus chords
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  1. Thanks Tim that is a fun chord progression!

    If a student wants to add sus chords to a piece that doesn’t have any, is there any formula to determine where the best place is to add them?

    • Just use your ears!

  2. Tim I love it! Its fab and sounds so cool. Many many thanks for opening up a whole new world of chords to me and to my students… (That is when I get them! So until then my husband will be my guinea pig!)

    • Thanks Katherine – glad you like it! If you need help with your marketing and studio growth, please do explore my members area:

  3. While I was watching the video, my usually too-cool to be interested 10 y.o. son called out from the next room, “Mom! What is that song?” Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner! If he likes it, it will definitely get my students excited. Thanks, Tim!

    • Hey Laura – that is THE coolest bit of feedback I’ve heard about this progression. Thanks so much for taking the time to share. Hope you don’t mind if I keep this to tell other people about this idea 🙂

  4. Ha! The epic chord progression sounds very similar to “Cold as Ice” by Foreigner. I have some middle school students who would enjoy playing this. Usually I wait until sus chords come up in lead sheets before discussing it with students, but this would be a better way to get it in their ears & fingers first. Sound before sight is usually a better way to introduce concepts. Thanks for sharing!

    • I hadn’t thought of that! Nice connection. Glad that you agree that your kids will enjoy it… make sure you let me know how it goes!

  5. This is an amazing idea, thank you so much! I have already done the “Heart and Soul” 4-chord progression with some of my older students. They loved it so much, and want to continue, but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. This is perfect!

    • Great news Nancy. And if you like that and want more, check out for my whole 4 Chord Composing concept 🙂

    • Hey Betsy – thanks for sharing that. Always good to find great new resources 🙂

  6. Great idea! Looking forward to putting it into practice with my students. Thanks for sharing it, Tim ☺

    Regarding “sus” chords, I usually introduce them after practicing different major/minor chords. We do some written exercises on perfect fourths and resolve them to major chords (including note names and keyboard diagrams). Then we practice with my favorite “sus”-chords-songs: A little respect, by Erasure. That’s a wonderful song to practice “sus” chords (mainly “sus4”, but there’s one “sus2” too). We play it using lyrics and chords symbols only (no sheet music here).

    Keep up the great work! ?

      • Last week I found an “acapella track” of the song on YouTube. My students love this “acapellas” to practice their comping skills (specially those who don’t sing along or accompany a singer). Here’s the link:

  7. Nice! I usually teach straight from the method book with beginners and am wanting to change that. This is a lovely idea!

    • Hey Anita. This is perfect as something to do alongside the method book – enjoy getting creative 🙂

  8. Oh I like this! Thank you. I can ask my students in school to compose a melody over this 🙂

    • Enjoy – let me know how it goes 🙂

  9. This is awesome! I have a couple of new beginners, ages 9 and 11, who I’m excited to try this on. Just a question, when you’re teaching this sort of thing to beginners, what do you tell them to work on at home, how do you tell them, and do they do it? I’m a young teacher who’s trying to break away from the traditional teaching method I’ve always used and not be totally dependent on method books, and I’m trying to integrate composition, improv, etc. into my lessons. Since I’m so used to always assigning songs, I don’t know how to leave myself enough time during lessons to explain how kids are going to remember how to do these other things out at home!

    • Hey Amy. Thanks for your question and good on you for trying some new things. You’re the perfect audience for the stuff that I blog about here, so welcome. In answer to your question. once I’ve introduced this in a lesson, the amount of homework depends on how they’ve taken to it, but generally if they can play the sequence I get them to practise playing it maybe 3 or 4 times in a row and then I get them to record it on their phone/ipad. Once recorded, I get them to listen back to it while improvising on the white notes (which I show them in the lesson if there’s time). Then next lesson I ask that we can duet: I play the chords while they improv and vice versa. If they can’t get the progression in 1 lesson, I just get them to keep working at the coordination and start the hands together/improv next lesson. Hope that helps!

      By the way, have you checked out my post about pop songs/chords: Could be another great place to explore.

      Good luck 🙂

  10. Too fun. It is great to see a demo on how to take this from theory to beautiful music. This is GREAT!

    • Thanks Marilyn! I used it again just the other day and kids really love the sounds 🙂

  11. thanks Tim cleared up understanding of sus chords for me

    • Glad to help 🙂

  12. Great video here Tim. Somehow I knew your left hand octaves would move down to F’s after playing A’s 🙂
    Martyn =>

    • I know… it’s a bit predictable but everyone loves it 🙂

  13. […] Using ‘sus’ chords to inspire beginners […]

  14. […] on them each lesson thereafter, perhaps by playing simple duets (eg. Heart and Soul), introducing sus chords, or playing pop songs that use very simple triads (eg. Let it Be by the Beatles comes to mind) and, […]

  15. Reblogged this on 88pianokeys and commented:
    Heart and Soul is the doorstep to a lifetime of creativity. Thanks for sharing the Am twist!

  16. Great idea, Tim. RH triads are probably a bit much for my young beginners’ hands, but I intend to use it with a couple of older students.
    (I’m a frequent reader of your blog – thank you for it – but this is my first comment.)

    • Thanks for reading, Jenny!

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