I'm specifically thinking about 5th R 4th ...bass to treble... like D G C.

I suppose Gsus4 is the unambiguous symbol for that tone set.

Gmsus4 could be used to indicate minor mode.

I also suppose not resolving the "suspension" is fine. Something like Dmsus4 Emsus4. (But I really dislike sus being used that way. If it didn't resolve, how was it ever suspended? It's like talking about a door that only closes.)

Anyway, I know about the "So What" chord and quartal voicing of tertian chords. Stuff like...

  • C6add9 as E A D G C or
  • Dm11 as E A D G C F

...but strictly speaking those aren't unambiguous quartal chords. They contain tones for triads.

Two or three fourths seems to be the un-ambiguous quartal chords...

  • E A D G or
  • E A D

...where you can't re-arrange letters to get triads and thereby implied/inverted tertian chords.

Are the symbols Emsus4 and Asus4 (or Amsus4) the best option to indicate what I'm calling an un-ambiguous quartal chord?


In this case, Gsus4 would be the ideal. Or, Gsus4/D if you want the D in the bass. With the "E A D G" chord, you could just as easily say Em11. The 11 definitely indicates a more "sus" sound. If you don't want an F# in the E chord, then Em7(add11) is perfectly fine. Dsus/E also works, but seems a little hard to interpret (Do you want a D-centered sound or an E-centered sound? is the first question in my head when I see that chord).

On sus chord notation in general: In Jazz, it's more or less implicitly understood (rather than explicitly stated) when quartal harmony is happening in the music. This is generally indicated when a type of "sus" chord in general appears (especially when not functionally related to the other chords around it), and very explicit when several in succession appear. A9sus, G/A, and E-7/A refer essentially to the same sound (and would be interpreted similarly), and to someone who knows the "langauge," they would understand immediately that quartal harmony - and its implied scales such as pentatonics and so on - are afoot. Take the changes to Herbie's "Maiden Voyage" for one of the best examples of this. Coltrane's "Naima" also makes use of sus chords and "suspended" harmonies - but in both cases they are more of harmonic-textural choices, "colorless" compared to major or minor sounds. Now as to why they are called "sus" chords is simply a matter of convention - similar to how (in Jazz) a "phrygian" chord is often notated something like A7susb9. "Phrygian" implies minor, but here we see a "sus" indicating that the 3rd should be left out. It's really just a matter of convention in many ways with Jazz. There is probably someone at Berklee who has tried very hard to sort this stuff out, but old habits die hard of course. So as a rule of thumb, stick with the convention as most people will understand what you're talking about. Now, with other methods of theory these chords would be notated different (Hindemith actually has his own notation for quartal chords, and Forte numbers could be used as well for analytical reasons). I suppose it would depend on what your professor prefers... But that's more situational than general.

  • 1
    I think I'm hearing a "yes" to.... "Are the symbols Emsus4 and Asus4 (or Amsus4) the best option to indicate what I'm calling an un-ambiguous quartal chord?". Am I reading you correctly? – Michael Curtis Jan 10 at 16:55
  • Can you add a bit about Hindemith's and Forte's notation? I know both names, but not the notation. – Michael Curtis Jan 10 at 16:56
  • I updated my answer because I misread the question. And I only mentioned Forte and Hindemith simply because those are two ways to more precisely analyze/notate note collections, but nobody on the bandstand would know what you were talking about. They're not so important for practical purposes. – LSM07 Jan 10 at 16:56
  • If the harmony really is quartal, then a combo of 3 pitches such as your D G C is a chord in its own right, and not a sus chord resolving onto a triad or seventh-chord. So why say "sus"? Why not D 4 7 (if the root is D), G 4 (if the root is G) or C 2 (if the root is C)? – Rosie F Jan 10 at 17:02
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    I think you confirmed my suspicion. There are conventions, and the chord symbol system has some shortcomings (IMO) – Michael Curtis Jan 10 at 18:05

I don't know if this has been standardized in any way, and these aren't necessarily "symbols," but there are two systems that I've seen:

  1. In Kostka's textbook on twentieth-century music, he labels these chords as "N × I on P," I being the size of interval, N being the number of iterations of that interval, and P being the pitch on which it is based. Your D G C, for instance, would be "3 × 4 on D," because there are three iterations of a fourth built on D. C G D A would be "4 × 5 on C." And so on.

  2. But most people tend to go the set-theory approach. D G C reduces to an (027) pitch-class set, so they just call it an (027) and somewhere in their discussion they mention that it's quartal. C G D A reduces to an (0279), and so on.

  • The Kostka notation wouldn't be useful for notating a chord in which not all the fourths are perfect. – Ben Crowell Jan 10 at 18:24

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