I'm playing the prelude in Bach's d-minor suite. My teacher and I were wondering what the third to last chord is. We didn't find that A, E and D form a chord, but do they? Is the D maybe a "queuing" note that resolves to the C#? We found that this chord was the climax of the phrase and that's maybe because it is so exotic.

All info is appreciated. The chord circled


5 Answers 5


It is actually misleading to think about this music in terms of chords as we know them, as the system we use to identify and speak about vertical harmonies was still under development during Bach's time. Bach had no concept of a "suspended chord" for instance. Bach did not think of chords the way a guitarist does (moveable stacks of exact intervals, with major/minor system names), as that outlook on harmony was a product of the 19th century, and not a prevalent theory in his day. As strange as it sounds ideas like chord names (G minor chord, C major chord) would have been alien to him. That's not saying his music can't be seen from that lens, but it doesn't help you understand how both performers, and composer's saw the music in his day, and the music makes far more sense when you see it on its own terms.

It is true that the "chord" you have found as an example of a contrapuntal suspension (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonchord_tone#Suspension), but to really get inside Bach's head, you have understand that he saw stacks of intervals which were the incidental consequence of good counterpoint, rather than purposefully constructed vertical harmonies.

For Bach, creating the movement from D, to C# and back to D again was the most important goal, and suspending the D from the previous chord allows him to do this quite gracefully.


Because it allows him to resolve the final contrapuntal movements correctly. You see, it was considered desirable to end a contrapuntal line with 7th-Root in the top voice, and 5th-root in the bottom voice. Everything before that point is just (artfully) setting up the voices so they made gracefully enact that moment.

Try to think of the music as individual, independent melodies.

  • Usually in a cadenza you would end with ii/ii°/iv/IV, V, and then i. Is that "chord" then a substitute for ii/ii°/iv/IV? Commented May 4, 2015 at 23:19
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    This is a iv-V-I cadence, but with a prolongation of V on a dominant pedal. M.58 is essentially one measure of iv elaborated as a compound melody with auxiliary tones. M.59 is the dominant 7th in root position, m.60 is the tonic in 2nd inversion; m.61 suspends the 4th, m.62 resolves it to the dominant in root position, and m.63 caps it with the tonic major. The bass pedal defines the harmony here: the tonic 2nd inversion is usually an elaboration of the dominant. What is a little unusual is that Bach uses it to kick off a 4-3 suspension (which isn't unusual in a figured bass setting).
    – user16935
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 0:33
  • My bad - tonic minor at the end. I can't read the example from here, and I forgot that Bach hadn't "Picardised" the tonic when I scrolled down to write my comment...
    – user16935
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 1:21
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    Ernst Kurth is one oft theorists that emphases the linear and counterpoint development of harmony by Bach. But I don‘t agree at all that many of Bach‘s music and so his suites are thought and invented vertically and harmonically composing. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 7:01
  • A lot of Bach's music demonstrates an extensive knewledge of chords. Works built on chord progressions show it very clearly like Gollberg Variations and Chaconne for solo violin. Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 14:02

It's an Asus4 chord, which is a suspended chord where the third (C#) is replaced by the fourth (D). The fourth is carried over from the previous chord (D minor), and - as you've suggested - resolves to the third (C#) of the next chord (A major).

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    This isn't how a conventional tonal analysis would describe it, although it does get the basic point. Traditionally, this would be described as just a voice-leading chord wherein only one of the dissonances of the preceding measure's cadential 6/4 chord has been resolved before fully-resolving to the next measure's V chord. Specifically, the 6th of the Cad6/4 has resolved to the 5th of the V, but the fourth of the Cad6/4 doesn't resolve to the 3rd of the V until the next measure. Bach does almost exactly the same trick at the end of the first suite prelude. @kallilalli Commented May 4, 2015 at 22:18
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    @PatMuchmore: That's exactly what a sus4 chord is: a voice-leading chord. I guess it's more about using different terms explaining the same thing. Nobody knows how Bach thought, but I believe we agree that the basic concept used here is very clear, and that it can be described in different ways.
    – Matt L.
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 22:25
  • Yeah, I think we basically agree, which is why I'm only adding a comment instead of a competing answer. However, I disagree that what I've described is precisely what a sus4 chord is—sus4s are used just as often, actually more often, as substantial harmonies in their own right. They do tend to resolve to triads over the same root (though not always), but they aren't generally just partial cad6/4 resolutions. I think it's worthwhile to point to the essential cadential 6/4 nature of the passage, and is probably also somewhat closer to Bach's conception. Commented May 4, 2015 at 22:36
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    @Matt L. "Nobody knows how Bach thought" We can get a pretty good idea from his pupil (and son) CPE Bach's imslp.org/wiki/… which includes a long chapter on figured bass. Bach would have figured the four chords before final one as "7 6/4 4 3" which corresponds pretty well with the modern notion of a suspended 4th.
    – user19146
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 22:58
  • @alephzero no, it doesn't. Guitarists mean a moveable stack of intervals that can be shoved into any situation a la carte when they say a "suspended" chord. There is absolutely no implication, nor necessity for suspended chord resolution within that (Jazz, or rock based) frame of view. The figure base implies a mandatory set up and resolution. Commented May 5, 2015 at 14:56

The accepted answer is patently ridiculous...

...but to really get inside Bach's head...

How about looking at Bach's manuscripts?

Here is an example from the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach which shows a figuration prelude where the completion of the prelude is written out in chords. The idea of chords wasn't alien to Bach or his contemporaries. The answer seems to be mistaking the concept of chords and harmony with the idea of fundamental bass (chord root and inversions) introduced by Rameau which was a new concept for the time. But the suggestion that harmony was not thought of in homophonic terms, as vertical chords, is false. That time period combined contrapuntal and homophonic approaches.

enter image description here

...stacks of exact intervals...that outlook on harmony was a product of the 19th century...stacks of intervals which were the incidental consequence of good counterpoint, rather than purposefully constructed vertical harmonies...

Rameau's Treatise on Harmony describes chords as stacked thirds so the concept is not a 'product of the 19th century.' The figured bass of Bach's time actually is stacking intervals above a bass part. The written figures literally stack intervals over the bass. Realization could be block chords or various figures and textures, but conceptually it was stacked intervals. Here is an example from BWV 151...

enter image description here

But regarding the original question...

We didn't find that A, E and D form a chord...

That is because the chord is actual an A chord, but the D note is a suspension.

This passage is actually a perfect textbook example. The previous measure is the "preparation" where the D is introduced as a chord tone in Dm a i6/4 chord, followed by an A chord V with the D note suspended, which then resolved down to C# for the proper V chord.

"Queuing" does capture the essence of the function and handling of the D note, but the technical term - which the teacher should have known - is suspension.

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    Why the down vote? There is good reason to criticize the mistakes in the accepted answer. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 17:46
  • "to really get inside Bach's head" would be nice but cannot be done. The accepted answer is too authoritative by half.
    – user48353
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 22:37
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    You are absolutely right that chords wasn't alien to Bach. As a matter of fact one just need to look at all those works where Bach made music based on chord progressions. One can take a look at the Goldberg Variations or a look at the Chaconne for solo violin. Those works speak for themselves. And there are many others. Often Bach's linear melodic lines are figurations around chords. His ability to work with both harmonies and melodic lines are amazing. Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 12:10

Bach certainly both knew and applied suspensions. The modern use of suspended chords is a heritage from classical music and it dates many hundred years back. It is certainly well known in baroque music. The usage of a sus chord has changed, but the term "suspension" has stayed.

Yes Bach made a lot of music based on linear counterpoint, but it is plain wrong to claim that he didn't make music based on chords. There is a chord system developed in baroque music with baroque chord symbols known as basso continuo also called figured bass. For a keyboard player the bass line was given for the left hand. Included with the bass line were chord symbols, figures, mostly numbers. Based on that it is up to the keyboard player to decide which chords to play with the right hand.

Examples: The bass note itself indicates which triad to play with the bass note being the root of the triad, and the type of triad (major or minor) given by the key signature. Thus if the key signature is 3 sharps (A major) the bass note E means an E-major chord. If you want an E minor chord there is a natural sign under the bass note E. In case the bass note is not the root of the chord it must be indicated with a figure. The figure "4" under a bass note means suspended fourth within root-position triad. Thus the bass note E with the figure "4" underneath actually means Esus4.

If the composer wants to write precisely what should be played he would do that instead of course. Bach has both written music with a basso continuo part for the keyboard and music with precisely written notes for the keyboard.

Today continuo parts for keyboard are often published with precisely written notes even though the composer actually only wrote the bass line with figures. So that is someone's suggestion of how to play it in order to help those who have not learned how to interpret a figured bass.


This is actually a Asus (a,e,d) V4 with suspended 4th resolving to the 3rd of A (a,c#,e).

It can quite clearly be proofed that each bar here is in a certain chord:

I don‘t agree at all with an other answer that denies this conept, as a lot of Bach‘s music and especially his suites are obviously composed and invented by vertically and harmonically “thinking”.

(Ernst Kurth is one of the theorists that emphase the linear-counterpoint development and horizontal approach to Bach‘s harmony. This also correct - but not exclusive.)

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    This answer should not be down voted. It correctly and concisely answers the question. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 17:48

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