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I've been playing around with a progression alternating between (roughly) D dorian and D mixolydian, roughly, with the left hand chords starting with D-F-G-C and resolving to D-F♯-A-C:

Two measures on a grand staff in 6/4 time, no accidentals in key
signature, quarter note = 96 bpm. Right hand, starting on D5, in
Lilypond notation: first measure, d8 a' a a~ a8 g16 f e f e d c8 d d a;
second measure, d8 a' a a~ a8 g16 f e f e d c8 d d4. Left hand,
starting on D2: first measure, d4.~ <d f g c>8~ q1; second measure,
d4.~ <d fis a c>8~ q1. The left hand chord in the first measure is the
object in question.

It struck me that I don't know how I would give a simple name to that first chord.

Some options that seem imperfect:

  • The G functions like a suspension, but it's suspending the fifth instead of the third, so it's not just a Dm7sus4.
  • The chord is enharmonic to a Dm7(𝄫5), but the G doesn't really seem to be acting as an A𝄫.
  • The chord has the same pitches as a G7sus4 in second inversion, which seems not too far off, as a G7sus4 (non-inverted) would function similarly. But it feels important that D is the chord's root, not just its bass, and writing it as the inversion of a G chord loses that.

Is there a nice name here that I'm missing, something that fits the function and usage of the chord in context?

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  • This is pretty :) to me the chord (including the A in the melody) has a similar quality to stacked perfect fourths, starting from A (or D if you want). So I might think of it as a revoicing of that, but I'm not sure about naming
    – jberryman
    Jan 6, 2022 at 20:57
  • 1
    @jberryman: thanks! :) Yeah, agreed re: stacked fourths: <a d g c f> also works in the first measure. I noticed while thinking about this that I also wouldn't really know how to give a simple name to even <d g c>, which does make me worry less about chord names overall!
    – wchargin
    Jan 7, 2022 at 0:02
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    @wchargin if the sound of quartal harmony appeals to you, keep in mind 7sus4 is often conflated with quartal harmony, and that adds weight to the answers below. Jan 9, 2022 at 2:23

6 Answers 6

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I head the D-bass and the remaining notes as distinct here. So I'd describe it as stacking an Fsus2 chord on top of D in the first bar. That also takes care for the fact that the G resolves upwards, although when it does resolve the chord is not F anymore but rather F♯o.

1
  • Interesting perspective! Fsus2/D actually resonates with me a lot, and just feels appropriate. For instance, the measure also works if you omit the low D entirely and just play the Fsus2. It also helps that, as you say, the suspended G resolves to an A. Thank you!
    – wchargin
    Jan 7, 2022 at 0:02
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I would probably go with the original purpose of chord symbols, which is not theoretical analysis but rather to tell the guitarist and bassist what to play, call it G7sus4/D, and not worry about it any more than that. Harmonic analysis is a subjective topic about which reasonable people can reasonably disagree, and if your main purpose is to prepare performing materials it should be a secondary consideration. The primary consideration should be "what will tell the performer what to play with the smallest possible expenditure of mental energy on the performer's part?"

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Naming chords isn’t always an exact science, especially when they are not just a series of stacked thirds. Also, keys and modes are somewhat irrelevant to chord symbols with the exception of correct enharmonic spelling within a key (ex. F#m7 in the key of E instead of Gbm7)

As for your choice #1, I understand what you mean that it sounds like a suspension of the 5th in this context but sus replaces the third of the chord with a 2 (sus2) or a 4 (sus4) so there are no minor (or major for that matter) sus chords.

With #2 I have never seen a double diminished 5th in a chord symbol (and I’ve seen a lot of them, trust me) so let’s scratch that one.

#3: G7sus4/D is a strong contender. It is accurate to what is written. The only issue is that sometimes players add unsolicited 9ths and/or 13ths to sus4 chords.

If you want to spell it as a D chord then I suggest two slightly long winded options:

Dm11(no5) This may possibly be interpreted as also containing a 9th which you probably don’t want.

Dm7(add4)(no5) It’s long but will get you exactly what you want.

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  • The right hand is playing an A above that chord, so if you're going to name it some sort of D minor chord, I think you don't need the (no 5) part?
    – Divide1918
    Jan 6, 2022 at 12:46
  • @Divide1918 I agree but I chose to answer literally based on the OP’s question regarding those 4 specific notes. There may be situations where a composer wants certain notes omitted from the harmony even if they appear in the melody. Then again there are also times where performers will omit certain notes (like a 5th) contained within a chord symbol. Jan 6, 2022 at 15:04
  • @wchargin Based on Divide1918’s comment do you wish to exclude the melody notes (specifically the A) from the harmony? Jan 6, 2022 at 15:07
  • Thanks for your thoughts! The A in the melody definitely seems like part of the harmony, but the chord would feel very different if an A3 were played in the left hand.
    – wchargin
    Jan 7, 2022 at 0:02
  • @wchargin I agree. In that case you are doing the right thing by writing out the specific voicing you want. The chord symbol can just be for informational purposes. Chord symbols will rarely get you EXACTLY what you want, there are too many variables. Jan 7, 2022 at 4:35
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G7sus/D is probably the most useful description.

Why are you using chord symbols? As an attempt at harmonic analysis, or as an aid to sight-reading? When naming a chord results in something as complicated as Dm7(add4)(no5), isn't it simpler to just read the notes? (And anyway, as far as harmonic analysis goes, there IS a 5th, prominently repeated in the melody.)

You really mustn't get so obsessed with trying to make everything fit the 'pile of thirds' that you invent a monstrosity like Dm7(𝄫5)!

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  • I'm mostly just using chord symbols here as an aid to my thought process; it's nice to be able to give names to things so that we can talk about them and see connections, if there are any. Agreed that Dm7(𝄫5) does not feel appropriate. :-)
    – wchargin
    Jan 7, 2022 at 0:02
  • OK. I'd call the first bar 'D dorian'. The second bar might deserve a more functional name, 'D7'.
    – Laurence
    Jan 7, 2022 at 18:49
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Functional analysis and voicing rules (G resolves to A) are time bound and not universal. So you are free to name the chord as you like.

All we can say is that G is surely not A♭♭!

Most logically seems to me to call it a secondary dominant of G e.g. like Dm is ii-V or D is V/G). (Even I know we are in D-Dorian! Thats the way I listen to it in d-Dorian as relative to C-Ionian.

The G is rather a "Pedal tone" than a suspended note.

The passage reminds me of this song:

No, I don't think that there's a special term to name this chord. Most probably it is derived from the hurdy-gurdy style. The G sounds to me somehow like a pedal tone: like the 5th of the tonic becoming the 9th in the subdominant or the 4th in the predominant:

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This is kind of an abstract meta-answer... feel free to downvote.

Musical notation is a form of written language about musical ideas from people to people. Who is your target audience? How do they interpret what you're saying with the notation?

I understand your question so that you're having problems even yourself - none of the chords symbols you could think of really cuts it and accurately conveys the feeling you have about the exact combination and voicing of notes. Could that be a sign that what you feel essential and unique about this particular note combination, is something different from the harmonic ideas that are typically communicated using chord symbols? You know, C, Dm, G7 ... it doesn't matter how you voice this and what instrument is used, piano or guitar, anything goes as long as the harmony sways from side to side in a certain way. But now you have something that isn't about that harmonic swaying from side to side?

Do you have musician friends with whom you could test, how they understand your chord symbols? Take a guitarist, pianist, accordion player, whoever there could be in a band. If they play from your chord symbols in the way they typically do, is the original essential idea still there? If not, then maybe chord symbols aren't the right tool for communication!

The way chord symbols are talked about, might give the idea to some people that it's a universal description language that's capable of representing the essence of any kind of harmonic situation. But that's not true. Chords symbols serve some purposes in some sub-cultures and styles of music, but not all.

I would like to once again quote a part of a comment by user leftaroundabout in this question What is the "stack of thirds" in chord theory?

Many chords in common-practice music don't make sense without the voice leading context, and hardly benefit from a thirds-stack interpretation even when that is possible. Many genres use chords that simply can't be rearraged to anything thirds-based (e.g. because of microtonality). Honestly, I'd say only in Jazz-related music is it useful to think of chords as stacks of thirds.

As another example in addition to voice leading, I'd like to mention quartal harmony. Building chords from stacks of fourths creates a dimension of sound that cannot be expressed in the "stacks of thirds" way of thinking, and therefore cannot be expressed using chord symbols. Quartal chords can be laid over functional harmony songs, and they kind of support some roles there, but trying to express them in terms of chord symbols feels like you're speaking the wrong language. The essential idea is lost in translation.

So, if the purpose of this notation is to write notes for your own use, and chord symbols don't really convey the essence of what you want to say, then you could use regular staff notation and write down all of the notes. Or you could invent your own ad-hoc notation or chord symbols for the chords in question.

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