Welcome to “Beyond the Veil“! In this feature, its name (partially) taken from the Gods of Eden track, we’re going to delve into some theoretical aspect of the music we love in an effort to elucidate the behind-the-scenes workings at play, but in a largely jargon-free manner intended to be accessible to those who don’t necessarily have a music theory background.
I’ve covered intervals a number of times before here on Beyond the Veil, with the minor second in particular making an appearance for its characteristically dissonant sound, but let’s review once more: an interval is the distance between two notes, such that each distinct interval brings with it a characteristic sound or feel. Chords are therefore defined by the intervals between their constituent notes; within the context of a single chord, it is the combination of the intervallic relationships within it that ultimately create whatever the resultant sound is.
Of the interval family, the major third and minor third are certainly some of the more well known of the bunch. This prominence is quite well-deserved, given that they are often the fundamental intervals that result in a chord being ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, respectively, while the inclusion of other intervals on top in a chord only serves to colour the resultant sound further past that established baseline. The vast majority of chords contain one or the other — and are therefore made intrinsically major or minor — and they are arguably some of the most important building blocks available to a musician.
But what if we’re presented with a chord that didn’t have a major or a minor third? While all sorts of possibilities to this end exist, there are two intervals that are often used instead in order to create a ‘neutral’ tone: the major second and the perfect fourth. (We’ll be concerning ourselves with the major second for the purposes of this article, of course). When either one of these is substituted in at the expense of a third, this creates what’s called a suspended chord. There are a number of reasons why it’s named this, but an easy way of conceptualizing it is to think that the chord ‘hangs’ between being either major or minor as a consequence of the intervallic substitution at hand.
When a suspended chord contains a major second interval (as opposed to a perfect fourth), it is referred to as a sus2 chord specifically. These have an airy, almost spacey feel to them, and are used quite often in metal music as a consequence.
Of course, one might wonder: what do we get when we include a major second in a chord, but actually retain either a major or a minor third? This actually results in what’s called the add9 chord, which is used almost just as much! The add9 chord certainly retains the airiness of the sus2 while infusing the chord with a major or minor mood, as one would expect. However, interestingly enough, the major second interval is quite close to both the major and minor thirds (although closer to the latter than the former), which as we know can create a bit of dissonance. This lends an even more interesting aspect to the chord, in that it has that inherent dissonance at some level in containing both a major/minor feel and the airy neutrality of the major second interval. In fact, this is actually an example of what was mentioned earlier about the third constituting a ‘building block’ that other intervals can be added to in order to colour a chord further: turns out that in this case, the major second is doing exactly that.
The prolific Canadian genius that is Devin Townsend starts off our examples today with his propensity to use the sus2 chord across nearly every record in his massive and eclectic discography. The spacey feeling of the sus2 chord goes hand-in-hand with his massive wall-of-sound approach to music, often making key appearances in huge chord-based musical moments.
For instance, the lovely “Hyperdrive” opens with Devin alternating between sus2 and major chords:
Meanwhile, the main riff of “The Way Home” revolves around two successive sus2 chords:
On the more technical end of the spectrum, guitarist Michael Keene of The Faceless is also known for frequently using the add9 as part of his arsenal of chords. This makes an appearance in the midsection of “Sons of Belial”, where he both strums the chords and arpeggiates them right after — making for a great example of the slight dissonance inherent within add9 chords.
Animals as Leaders
Our examples today are rounded out by Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, who makes good use of both sus2 as well as minor add9 chords on “Song of Solomon”. While the intro starts out with some nifty sus2 chording, the song’s midsection (0:49 onwards) involves Abasi actually switching between two minor add9 chords that are a tritone apart for an even cooler resultant effect that only amplifies the chord’s slightly dissonant quality.