From time to time, especially in my favourite songs lists, I’ve talked about “suspended harmony” being a thing that I like in certain songs. But what exactly is suspended harmony, where is it found in k-pop songs, and what’s so great about it? This post has all the answers!
This post is now going to dive into a lot of music theory. People have been asking me a lot for more music theory posts, so this one’s for you. Be aware that you may soon be sorry that you asked this. So anyway, here we go, and I will do my best to explain all of this crap with as little music-reading and as many pole dancing k-pop pictures as possible.
THE SECRET TRUFAX OF THE HISTORY OF WESTERN HARMONY
More than one note played at a time by any instrument (or group of vocalists) is called a “chord” and the use of this in songs is called “harmony”. The most common kind of chord is called a “triad”, and music students will all be familiar with “major chord”, “minor chord” etc which are both triads – three-note chords. Some of you may also know that there is another type of triad called a “suspended chord”. More advanced music students will know the following, that the western diatonic (seven note) scales build up all chords, and that the following chords are created using the following scale degrees:
Major chord – first, third and fifth notes of the major scale or 1 – 3 – 5
Minor chord – first, flat-third and fifth degrees of the major scale or 1 – b3 – 5
Suspended 4th – first, fourth and fifth degrees of the major scale or 1 – 4 – 5
Suspended 2nd – first, second and fifth degrees of the major scale or 1 – 2 – 5
However what you might not know is why a suspended chord is called a suspended chord, and what that actually means. Understanding the meaning behind the term “suspended” is important to understanding why in some contexts suspended chords sound fucking cool (and in other contexts, not so fucking cool).
One of the big secrets of music theory is this – composers of music such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart knew absolutely fuck-all about chords. They didn’t even know what a “major chord” was, because although chords were everywhere in their songs, the concept of a “chord” hadn’t actually been invented yet. They just had good ears and wrote what sounded good to their ears, in compliance with the proven “melodic movement standard” of the day (more on that below). It was only after their songs were written, people looked at them and tried to figure out what made them work, and noticed that there was a definite pattern in the layout of notes on top of notes, that would always reoccur and produce certain effects (such as – the major chord was an interval of a major third (the distance between 1 and 3) and then the interval of a minor third on top (the distance between 3 and 5) and the result sounded “happy”, however flip the intervals over and you have a “sad” sound). This is when modern standards of “harmony in music theory” were first invented, there actually was no strictly formalised music theory that covered chords before this time.
However there were still standard practices for melodic movement. Some of you who made it all the way to third grade in music theory will know about some of these. You’ll know for instance that “parallel fifths” in cadence writing is a no-no and if you put these in your music theory exam result you’ll fail faster than YG would fail a first-year gender studies course. However, why is parallel fifths a bad thing to learn how to do, especially given that almost all of modern music is almost nothing but parallel fifths? Well, people back in ye olde days didn’t really see a “chord”, they saw rather a “collection of intervals between different melodies”, and there were certain melodic movements that were disliked at the time because they were not considered “good music” for whatever reason. So those shitty cadence exercises evolved back in the days when people were trying to figure out Classical-era music so they could emulate it, and listening tastes and standards have changed since those times, but we’re still stuck with the same boring exercises because your music teacher is a boring cunt.
Standard practices for modern melody construction began in the Renaissance era, shortly after the Middle Ages where people just did those horrid Gregorian chant things or whatever. Most modern instruments hadn’t even been invented by this stage, so Renaissance era writing was based around vocals, therefore harmony in this context mainly meant groups of vocalists singing together. As time went on it was noticed that if more than one vocalist was singing together, if certain relationships in pitch distance existed between the voices, this would be more pleasing to the ear, or harmonius (hence harmony). Other distances however did not sound good at all, and some indeed sounded very bad, and I mean bad meaning bad, meaning that if you wrote a song for the royalty with these intervals in it, you ran a serious risk of being accused of witchcraft or being sentenced to the gallows for trolling the King’s court. The study and practice of this old-timey musical mumbo-jumbo is called “counterpoint” and the definitive text which evokes the “rules of counterpoint” as they applied to the Renaissance era is considered to be “Gradus Ad Parnassum” by J.J. Fux (who was one hell of a caonima judging by his name alone). There’s a lot more to this than what I’m going to cover in this post, but the basis of the harmonic practices adopted by J.J. Fux’s study is that some intervals (distances between notes) were deemed “consonant” and others “dissonant”. They are as follows:
Unison – consonant
Second (major and minor) – dissonant
Third (major and minor) – consonant
Fourth – dissonant
Fifth – consonant
Sixth (major and minor) – consonant
Seventh (major and minor) – dissonant
Octave – consonant (effectively the same as unison, as the seven notes repeat from this point)
Tritone – I’m going to attack your butthole today
Out of all the above, the third and sixth were generally the most desirable intervals. Unison (which is what most k-pop groups do when they sing together), while a “good” interval, also wasn’t ideal, because two voices singing in unison are doing the same note so they might as well just be one voice. The fifth likewise while also a “good” interval was considered more “neutral” than the third and sixth, because the fifth does not have a major and minor version so like the unison it lacked character. Flattening a fifth doesn’t give a “minor fifth”, instead the flat-fifth is the dreaded tritone or “devil’s note” which would never be played ever, it wasn’t until the later Baroque period that tritones very gradually started gradually appearing in music.
As for the dissonant intervals, they were permissible, on the condition that they were “resolved”. A dissonant interval was considered to create “suspension” or a feeling of tension due to the unappealing harsh vibrations of the two frequencies interacting with each other, and this tension in the piece was acceptable as long as it was counterbalanced by a “resolution” where the vibrations became more appealing and nice. Resolution was always in a downward motion, voices going downward was considered more pleasing than voices going upward, and most pieces would start with a jump up and then gradual motions downward. So an interval of a second was okay, as long as it resolved to a unison, but resolving a second to a third was considered more “problematic”. If you think people are snowflakes today, imagine writing a letter to the church about how you were offended by the choir’s musical interval use – yes this was controversial in the day with “progressives” and “conservatives” battling over where they could place notes and still be keeping on good terms with the Tooth Fairy. Likewise, a fourth was okay, if it was resolved to a third, but could not be resolved to a fifth as easily. The way to counterbalance the problematicism of “forbidden movement” was to make sure that whatever the case, the resolution occurred by a downward movement. If the top part of the harmony couldn’t be moved downward to decrease the interval, the bottom part could be instead moved downward to increase the interval between it and the top note. Resolution of any sort was always preferable to keeping the suspension of dissonance going too long, and the resolution would change those “bad” intervals into “bad meaning good” interval movements.
4th to 3rd = bad meaning good
2nd to unison = bad meaning good
7th to 6th = bad meaning good
Now if we take a look at for example the suspended 4th chord that we saw earlier, it’s an interval of a fourth (1 to 4) with an interval of a second on top (4 to 5).
By playing either a major or minor triad after the suspended chord, we can then by using just one downward movement (moving the middle note down one step from 4 to 3) resolve the 1-4 (fourth) to 1-3 (third) and also resolve the 4-5 (second) to 3-5 (third). This is the effect of resolving the suspension in the suspended chord, it’s a strong removal of tension feeling, and could be compared to the strong removal of tension that comes from fapping.
SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH K-POP?
Fast-forward to the modern era of k-pop comebacks, and the Renaissance era rules of suspended harmony are no longer as important as they once were, however the sound of the suspension lives on in the “suspended chord” which survives to the present day. The suspension chord however isn’t always used in context with its natural resolution chord, the major or minor triad of the same key, because modern ears are more used to hearing dissonant vibrations than our ancestors so the old “resolution at all costs” idea is not so relevant. That doesn’t mean that people are adverse to a nicely resolved set of chords but it’s not the huge requirement that it once was.
For those of you unsure about the sonic effect that all of this suspension-resolution stuff generates, let’s now look at some k-pop examples of suspended chords and other suspended harmony elements in action.
The sound of the suspended chord (sus4 to normal triad) resolving is heard at various points in the backing track throughout F-ve Dolls’ excellent “Can You Love Me”, a song which is greatly helped by the presence of these elements. It’s most noticeable of all during Dani’s rap at 1:35, because her breathy voice is dialed a notch lower than everyone else. The song also has a second melody (i.e a counterpoint melody) in the strings which also hits on various suspensions, it’s most noticeable at 1:55 where there is a 2-1 suspension-resolution in the vocals. This song is put together with compositional skills sharper than Hyoyoung’s knife.
Orange Caramel’s great “Magic Girl” has the suspended chord as well, audible with vocals singing along to the dropped note at 1:07, it’s also present in the backing track without vocals at 0:24 but it’s barely audible, the vocal one is much easier to follow along to. Note that the harmony doesn’t have to be all with one instrument to have the effect, so the vocals can do the suspension-resolution movement while the backings do the surrounding notes, or vice-versa, or any combination of these.
Another example is Year 7 Class 1’s “Oppa Virus”, from 0:27 the girls sing the 4 to the 3 in the suspended chord, then the guitar immediately mimics them with a “Stairway To Heaven”-ish turnaround of sus4-major-sus2-major (4-3-2-3).
There’s plenty of less-obvious suspension and resolution happening in Lovelyz’ “Ah-Choo”, as they’re mainly just played by the backing keyboards, one of the little details that makes this song work so well.
I’ll leave you with this video. Loona 1/3’s “Love & Live” has suspensions all over the place, the entire chorus is built on them. I’m not going to point them out, your exercise to see if you’ve learned something from this post is to see if you can find them all!
Oh and just one thing before I go…
TRY NOT TO BE A COMPLETE FAGGOT BITCH ABOUT THIS POST
Contrary to the wacky belief that my haters have that I’m somehow positioning myself as some kind of authority on music taste, I actually do recognise that my opinion that this is a great sound is just my subjective opinion. Therefore lots of suspension/resolution in a song doesn’t make it objectively “better”, just (usually) “better to me”. So try not to spread around your faves on some social network with “look Kpopalypse says this has lots of this thingos in it therefore it is better” because nobody cares, nor should you (unless you also happen to like that sound, but there’s no reason why you should expect anyone else to also like it). Also, please try and refrain from asking me whether every fucking song you can possibly dig up has suspensions in it or not, the point of this post is to give you the tools so you can find things for yourself instead of fucking asking me all the time. Thanks cunts, and please enjoy these suspensions.