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Figured Bass Lesson 4: Suspensions

Grade 7 Music Theory - Q1 Figured Bass. Lesson 4 - Suspensions

What is a Suspension?

A suspension happens when a note from one chord is held over (or repeated) into the following chord, making a dissonance with the bass. The dissonance then resolves to a consonance.


• Here, the F from the previous V7a chord is repeated in the Ia chord. Remember that F doesn't normally belong in a C major chord!

• The F forms a dissonance with the bass. Intervals which are dissonant with the bass are the 2nd, 4th, and 7th (and their compounds). Dissonances feel kind of "crunchy".

• The dissonant note (F) resolves onto E (crunchy becomes smooth). E is part of the normal C major chord, so it is consonant.


How to Figure a Suspension

In figured bass, both the suspension and resolution need to be figured.

• In the above example, the "alien" note in the C major chord is a 4th above the bass, so we figure it with a 4.

• The 4th above the bass (F) moves ("resolves") to the third above the bass (E), so we figure that with a 3.

• The two notes of the suspension are connected with a short dash.



Where to Add a Suspension

In the Grade 7 music theory exam figured bass question, it's usually relatively easy to spot where a suspension is needed. You will find that the bass note does not change (but might leap by an octave), but there are two asterisks (used to show where the ABRSM wants you to put a figure) below the bass note.

Something like this:


The bass note E has two asterisks.

Note that the bass line could also look like this if a 6-4 chord is required, rather than a suspension. Look at the melody notes carefully – in the above case it can't be a 6-4 chord on the E bass, because the other chord notes would be C and A.

Next, check that the suspended note was part of the previous chord. The previous chord here is A minor (because it's unfigured, so it's a 5-3 chord). Of the notes A, C and E, only A makes a dissonance with a bass E (it's a 4th). So the suspension must be 4-3.

Watch out! In a minor key, most V chords should be major-ized. This suspension will resolve on to a chord of E major, so we'll need to add an accidental to the figure too. Here's the bass figured:


And just for your information, this is how the full realisation might look:



 Notice that in this case, the suspension occurs in an inner part (i.e. not in the melody line or bass). Although you don’t actually need to write out the alto and tenor parts in the grade 7 exam, you do need to know what is likely to be happening within them!

What if we chose to figure this a different way? Perhaps we could put E major then A minor, or E major then C major? The first solution won’t work, because the A minor chord would be in second inversion, but is not one of the cases where a second inversion chord will work. The second solution is also unsatisfactory, because E major followed by C major is not a common progression (see chapter 5).


Sometimes the bass line may appear NOT to be static – but remember that any added notes of melodic decoration won’t affect the fundamental harmony. In this case, on the third beat of the bar, the bass moves from Eb down to Bb, then up to Eb again. But the Bb is incidental – (it’s actually a “harmonic auxiliary note”) – and the fundamental bass is just Eb.

bass line decorated


In this suspension, the melody note Ab is first sounded in the first inversion Ab major chord (figured “6”). When the bass line moves up to Eb, the Ab in the melody becomes suspended. It’s now figured with a 4, because Ab is a 4th above Eb. The Ab then resolves to G, which is the 3rd of the Eb major chord. The Bb in the bass line is another chord note from the Eb major chord – it is melodic decoration, but is not dissonant within the Eb major chord.


Suspensions can also occur in the bass line itself, although this isn’t seen very often. Here’s an example.

bass line suspension


Bar 1 contains a D major chord, with D in the bass. In bar 2, the bass D is held over, but the harmony changes to an A major chord.

The D resolves to C# in the second half of bar 2. It is figured with 5-2, “5” is the A above the bass and “2” is the E.

The clues here are the tied note (tied and repeated notes are always a good clue that a suspension might be required), and the repeated E/A in the melody. Think of it as the same as similar to the suspension with the decorated bass note shown in the last paragraph, but upside down.


Tip! Look for Patterns!

Look carefully at the first couple of bars or so, which will already be figured for you.

If you see suspensions figured within the opening, see if you can find a sequence somewhere in the rest of the piece, where the same shape of melody/bass line has been used (perhaps at a different pitch). If you find a short stretch of music which is similar, it’s likely that a suspension will fit there too.

The ABRSM does expect you to be looking for sequences and other similarities, and to treat them in similar ways. If there is an obvious sequence and you fail to use a similar harmony, you may lose points.


You will probably find it useful to read more about suspensions in the Q2. Reconstruction section. For a modern interpretation of the suspension, take a look at Eric Strom's fascinating article on pop artist Miley Cyrus' song "Wrecking Ball", which uses the suspension too!


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