I've started reading Mark Levine's The Jazz Theory Book, and I have a couple questions about how he harmonizes the major scale. (Let's not even get started on the melodic minor!)

First, I'm confused about the choice of the sus♭9 chord for the 3rd degree of the scale. The ♭9 obviously makes sense, since that's what gives the Phrygian mode its distinct flavor. But why the sus? Actually, I think I've gotten confused about what sus actually means here. When I originally learned about sus chords, I learned that "the fourth replaces the third," but Levine calls this out as a "persistant myth." That seems to suggest I should think about the sus♭9 chord as a m11♭9. If that's the case, I guess extending the chord with the 11 makes some sense to me. However, Levine also says that this chord is usually played as 1, ♭9, 4, 5, 7, i.e. what I think of as a "true" sus chord. So I am a little lost.

The other thing I'm confused about is that Levine gives two different harmonizations of the V, either as a V7 or a Vsus. I guess the sus in Vsus implies a dominant seventh chord. I'm confused about why there are two different choices of harmony here and how to choose between them, and also have the same questions about the exact meaning of the sus chord here. Should I think about this as a 7add11 chord, or is something else going on here?

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    Sus just means “instead of the 3rd”. So a sus4 has a 4th and no 3rd. A susb9 would have a b9 and no third. I think “sus” with no number is probably meant to be sus4. The second most common sus chord in my experience is sus2. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 1:24
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    The way he spells this chord you mentioned in paragraph 2, say with a C root is more specifically a C7sus4b9. The m11b9 would have to have a m3rd in it so I don’t think that’s the right approach to it, I’m not familiar with his book so I can’t comment on his approach without knowing the big picture. Thanks for a great question though, +1. Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 3:38
  • Unfortunately, there are many places in this book where the music and the text don't align. Be prepared to be baffled again and again!
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 6:21
  • @JohnBelzaguy - I'd be interested in your opinion on the book, John.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 6:48
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    Levine's 'persistent myth' may well be in his own mind. Fact - sus is technically 4 replacing 3. No other. Leaving that 3 in the chord, it'll be an 'add' chord - which then differentiates it from the sus chord - a different beast altogether. Sometimes (often?) in jazz, with extended chords, it becomes onerous to fit an approptiate name to a bundle of notes. But surely one should be as accurate as possible, otherwise the point is lost.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 8:21

1 Answer 1


Usually you have in Jazz the ii-V progression (in a-minor: bdfa-eg#bd). If you suspend the whole Bm7b5 above the root of E (ii7b5 over V) you get exactly Esusb9 and it makes sense: f and a will resolve to e and g#.

To your confusion: In music theory you’ll often have the choice between different solutions of interpretations and theoretical approaches.

You don’t harmonize scales. We harmonize melodies in a context of harmonic progressions: i.e.in C major the III is secondary dominant of a minor, and I (ii7-V7)/vi is quite common.


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