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You see this chord a fair amount, usually leading to the tonic as a sort of souped-up plagal cadence (plagal in the treble, perfect in the bass).

Is there a specific name for this, other than "4 over 5"?

Alternatively, a name for the chord itself, a major triad over the note a tone above it. I suppose that at a stretch it could be considered a special case of a 13 chord, but only in the way that a 6/9 also could be (aka not really at all).

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    Possible duplicate of Is there a term for chords like F/G and C/D? – Matt L. Sep 1 '18 at 14:59
  • @MattL. thanks, I hadn't seen that. Is "none of the answers there really give me a satisfactory answer to the question" good enough grounds to keep this one open? probably not, in which case, probably best to mark this as a duplicate – Some_Guy Sep 1 '18 at 16:23
  • You could try to explain (in your question) why none of those answers are satisfactory. After all, in the key of C that chord is basically (and functions as) a G7/sus4 chord (with an added 9th). – Matt L. Sep 1 '18 at 16:58
  • @Some_Guy I don't think the question is a duplicate. You're asking for a more specific theoretical term, not a broad label, which is what that question is doing. – Richard Sep 1 '18 at 22:11
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No, I don't know of any generally-understood and unambiguous name for this chord, other than IV/V or F/G.

You'll see it labelled 'G11'. But you'll also see 'G11' used for Dm7/G and even for G7(sus4). And for any subset of GBDFAC that includes the root, 3rd and 11th. Lots of potential for confusion there.

And you'll see it called 'G9sus4'. But, as @MattPutnam says this ignores the absence of the 5th, D. And although this makes no functional difference, it's a very different colour if you add the D. Perhaps those who dislike the 'slash bass' would be happier to label it a 'dominant pedal'. Bach did that a lot!

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    I've always found that "11" thing you sometimes see in lead sheets to be a really crap summary of the chord too, and it can result in the ugliest of voicings from a reading rhythm section that doesn't know the song well (or how to use their ears haha) – Some_Guy Sep 1 '18 at 16:33
  • I'd (just maybe) use 'G11' as shorthand for F/G in a keyboard part. I wouldn't trust a guitarist with it! – Laurence Payne Sep 1 '18 at 18:36
  • a​m​e​n to that – Some_Guy Sep 1 '18 at 23:37
  • I'm going to mark this as the answer, because it's clear and concise, and covers the key points. However, if someone comes along with a better answer, I will not hesitate to revoke this green tick I have bestowed upon thee ;) – Some_Guy Sep 4 '18 at 23:42
  • You mean 'don't feel too good about it'? :-) – Laurence Payne Sep 5 '18 at 10:41
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Some popular-music scholars call this the "rock dominant"; I know I've encountered this term in Mark Spicer's (Ac)cumulative Form in Pop-Rock Music:

...the distinctive voicing of the so-called 'rock dominant', a polychord which can best be thought of as a close-position IV triad in the right hand sounding above ^5 in the bass, hence conflating subdominant and dominant functions.

In a footnote at the end of that sentence (see page 38) he says:

Because the rock dominant is somewhat difficult to voice on the guitar, it seems to be more characteristic within the harmonic language of keyboard-based pop and rock songs. Two obvious examples are 1 Occ' s 'I'm not in love' ( 1975) and Paul McCartney's Wings song 'With a little luck' (1978), each of which opens with a rock dominant (played on electric piano) as its signature hook. The chord likely has varied origins, both in gospel piano playing (indeed, the chord is as prevalent in soul music as it is in rock) and in American popular song from the first half of the twentieth century, where often at cadences one finds the melody moving directly to i, without a preceding 2 or other note that would support a pure V, as in the final cadence of Cole Porter's 'Night and day' (1932). A true rock dominant, with a IV triad in the right hand overS in the bass, can be found at the final cadence of Rodgers and Hart's 1938 song 'Who are you?' (not to be confused with the aforementioned Who song of the same name).

  • great contribution, thanks. I've always though of it as a really gospelly chord personally, but it's nice to see a written reference to it. (and he mentions its gospel roots too) – Some_Guy Sep 1 '18 at 16:31
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    Interesting quote. However, the term "rock dominant" sounds like it comes from someone who comes from a tradition that is very remote to rock. In what most people call rock music, that form of a dominant hardly ever occurs. You are much more likely to find it in soul/funk/pop music (as also acknowledged by Spicer). Also, Mr. Spicer doesn't seem to know much about playing the guitar when he writes "somewhat difficult to voice on the guitar". This chord is very easily played on the guitar, in several voicings, and most (pop, etc.) guitar players know how to play it. – Matt L. Sep 2 '18 at 12:13
  • Doesn't a 'polychord' require TWO triads, not just a 'slash bass' note? – Laurence Payne Sep 2 '18 at 13:31
  • @LaurencePayne: Yes, a polychord is indeed two chords above each other, not even necessarily triads. What is meant here is usually called "slash chords", i.e., chords over a bass note other than the root. They could be either simple inversions like C/E, or so-called hybrids like G/C. – Matt L. Sep 2 '18 at 14:24
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    Which is why I questioned Mark Spicer's "a polychord which can best be thought of as a close-position IV triad in the right hand..." – Laurence Payne Sep 2 '18 at 14:28
3

This chord is extremely common in modern musical theater, to the point that I sometimes call it "the musical theater chord". I've also had a lot of arguments about how to properly analyze it.

I've run into a lot of people who absolutely insist on calling it G9sus4. With G in the bass it's natural to call it some kind of G chord, but I think "9sus4" does a poor job of explaining the other notes. In particular, it doesn't explain the lack of a D. This D isn't omitted because of voicing issues (the way it is in a #11 chord, for example) or because we've run out of fingers, it's explicitly missing when it could easily be present, and that's a tough thing to account for in the analysis. Furthermore, accounting for the C as a suspended 4th has several problems:

  • The lack of a D weakens the sound of a suspension
  • It's often doubled (on piano, the right hand often has C-F-A-C), which is terrible voice leading for a suspension.
  • It never resolves to a B, and instead the voices on C stay on C as the chord resolves.

I think this analysis has too many holes to hold water. Calling it an 11th chord at least avoids these problems with the C, but still doesn't account for the missing D or explain the very particular voicing in the treble.

Calling it an F chord happily explains all of the treble notes, but that G in the bass is hard to explain. It would be Fadd9, with that 9 in the bass and explicitly not present in the treble, which is a flimsy analysis.

Whenever there's a chord that's ambiguous to analyze, I use a tool that I call the "simplification test". If you hypothesize that a chord is a G[insert crazy extensions], then a plain G chord (or maybe the appropriate 7th chord) should function the same in its place and merely have less color. At least in the musical theater context, the chord that most strongly passes this test is F. I agree completely with your idea of it being a plagal cadence, with a little bit of authentic motion in the bass to strengthen it (and also add a bit of tension to be resolved).

Chord symbols in sheet music have two main purposes:

  1. To explain the theory
  2. To provide instructions to a musician and get them to play the notes you want

The theory debate may rage on, but I hope everyone can agree that as a practical instruction to players, F/G is the label that will cause people to play the intended notes. A guitarist will see this and play an F chord, a bassist will play a G, and a pianist will play F-A-C in the right and G octaves in the left, and that's exactly what we want. G11 or G9sus are both going to cause most people to play Gs and/or Ds in the treble.

  • thanks for the answer. I guess when talking in a key agnostic way, I think I'm going to have to stick with "4 over 5". I suppose a problem is that it only works for when it literally is the 4/5 chord; 5 over 6 and 1 over 2 are also possible diatonically (if less common), and of course the mixolydian sounding b7/1, and you can use it as a secondary dominant too. I agree that calling it 9sus4 isn't really clear or theoretically that justifiable but that then leaves me with no real word for it (other than F/G, Bb/C etc., which is fine in a piece but doesn't work as a general term). Oh well! – Some_Guy Sep 1 '18 at 16:19
  • "over 9" sounds weird since a 9, by definition should be at the top of the chord (that's why it's not a 2). I suppose we could call it an "11 9 7"" chord, by analogy with figured bass (how people often call a third inversion a 6-4 chord), but that's a mouthful too. – Some_Guy Sep 1 '18 at 16:28
  • I'd say the 'musical theatre chord' was a tonic with added 9. It seems obligatory to end a ballad with it. And it infects the 'keyboard ostinato' style of accompaniment, beloved of composers without the resources or inclination to orchestrate more interestingly. – Laurence Payne Sep 5 '18 at 10:40
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I'm sure I've seen it written as '11'. The intro. chords to Midnight at the Oasis use several. E chord over F# bass is called F#11.

It becomes a sort of sus chord, with a b7. 7+4=11.

It's often just written as a slash chord, like your F/G.

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