This guide will answer what are diminished chords, how to use them, the different types of diminished chords, and how to identify and play them.
What Are Diminished Chords?
A Diminished Chord is a style of chord that contains a minor 3rd (three half steps over the root) joined with a diminished 5th (six half steps over the root). It has a unique timbre: dark, tense, and unstable sounding that might sound off-putting if used without context.
- What Are Diminished Chords
- What Makes A Diminished Chord
- What Are The 3 Diminished Chords
- Examples of Diminished Chords
- How To Play Diminished Chords
- What Is A Half Diminished Chord
- What Is A Diminished Guitar Chord
- Diminished Chord Books
What Are Diminished Chords
A diminished chord is a triad that is built from the root note, minor third, and a diminished fifth. It is a chord with two minor thirds above the root, which means three semitones separate the fifth and third notes of the chord.
Diminished chords come in three forms: diminished triads, diminished 7ths, and half-diminished chords. Each chord is used in different contexts.
Consider this example: a C major triad contains the notes C (the root), E (the third), and G (the fifth). Hence, a diminished C triad has the three notes: C, Eb, and Gb.
What Diminished Chords Sound Like
Diminished notes can add a sense of tension, drama, and suspense to music. They have a unique timbre that sounds dissonant, dark, and eerie. Their oddness makes them appealing.
However, the flattened fifth makes the diminished chords sound unstable and instills a desire for tonal resolution. They have the characteristic of leaving the listener hanging, making the resolve to consonant chords even more impactful. The sense of tension in diminished chords makes them interesting to use in progressions.
Remember the Garth Brooks’ tune “I’ve got friends in low places?’ Brooks opens the song with four arpeggiated chords, including a diminished chord. We hear diminished chords throughout jazz, hip hop, pop, rock, and even American country music.
How to Recognize Diminished Chords
Many musicians struggle to recognize chords, while others have some sixth sense when it comes to hearing chords. This often depends on the main instrument.
Singers, drummers, and other musicians who do not play harmonic musical instruments like the piano have difficulty hearing diminished chords.
There are a few different ways to identify diminished chords in music. Depending on your musical training, you might be inclined to use one method or a combination of methods.
The three different ways to recognize a chord:
- You can train your ears to head the chord by simple ear training. All you need to do is listen carefully to the chord repeatedly until you have basically memorized how the chord sounds in comparison with other chords. There are several ways of doing this, some are easier than the others, but the simplest one is to play the diminished chord over and over again, then combine it with one or more chords. By comparing the set of chords, you can eventually train your ear to recognize the diminished chord.
- You can learn to recognize diminished chords with arpeggiation. In appreggiation, you break up the chord into individual notes and sing the intervals.
- Chord quality is fundamentally how the chord sounds in terms of tone, feeling, and even color. Many musicians use chord quality to hear and recognize which chord is which. If you do not plat a harmonic instrument, or find it difficult to arpeggiate, then this might be the easiest way to distinguish one chord from another.
What Makes A Diminished Chord Diminished?
A diminished chord uses a basic triad of three notes stacked in intervals of two minor thirds. In the same way as minor chords, the diminished chord has a flattened or minor third.
The special diminished sound originated from the flattened or diminished fifth, which is also known as the tritone. The term ‘diminished’ refers to the interval between the root note and the fifth note in the chord.
The chord is smaller compared to major and minor chords, which is why it’s called diminishing-making smaller. The sound of diminished chords is described as unstable, disruptive, and even scary, and those are precisely the qualities that make these chords so helpful in chord progressions. They deliver drama and surprise.
What Are The 3 Diminished Chords?
There are three diminished chords: diminished triads, diminished 7ths, and half-diminished chords.
What makes triads unique is the quality of their constituent intervals. Like all triads, it has three notes: a root, a third, and a fifth. The diminished triad has a minor third and a diminished 5th.
Although the diminished triad is a chord itself, it can be considered as the common building bock used to create bigger chords: diminished 7th and half-diminished chords.
The diminished 7th chord picks up where the diminished triad left off, adding a diminished 7th interval (nine half steps over the root).
Half Diminished Chords
The half-diminished chord is a 7th chord composed of a root note, coupled with a minor third, a diminished fifth, and a minor seventh.
The diminished chord is popularly used as a bridge between two other chords. The diminished chord is perfect for this purpose as it contains a high amount of tension. This tension leads to a sense of relief once the progressions hit their destination chord.
Diminished chords create a step-wise motion in the root notes of the chords, which sounds great and adds an intriguing sense of movement to your music.
An excellent example of this is George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord.’ At 26 seconds, the chords change, and you can hear an F diminished chord. This chord works as a bridge between the E major and F minor.
What Are Some Diminished Chord Examples?
Here is a list of songs that include diminished chords.
- “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey
- “This Love” by Maroon 5
- “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks
- “SOS” by Abba
- “Michelle” by the Beatles
- “Chattanooga Choo Choo” by Glenn Miller
- “Every Time You Go Away” by Paul Young
- “Somewhere over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz
- “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Disney’s Pinocchio
How To Play Diminished Chords?
In music, minor chords evoke a certain sadness and have an eerie quality. Diminished chords can take that sound even further by adding a flat fifth.
Here is how you can use a diminished chord:
- Build your major tonic chord
- Follow with the diminished triad or diminished 7th chord a half step above the tonic chord.
- Finish with a minor chord a half step over your diminished chord.
Another way to use diminished chords is leading into a song’s vi chord, which is the minor chord built on the 6th scale degree of the key. Like the I – ii bridge, this use takes advantage of the diminished chord’s capacity to lead the listener’s ears in a specific direction.
The song “Stay with Me” by Sam Smith is a perfect example of the diminished song leading to the vi chord. The song is in C major, while the chord progression throughout the song stays A minor (the vi chord), F major (the IV chord), and C major (the tonic chord). An Ab diminished chord is added to lead into the final repetition of the progression, and it can be heard at 50 seconds under the word ‘darling.’
This is a clever use of the diminished chord as it leads up to the most lyrically critical moment of the song at the end of the chorus. While it may seem like a small thing, diminished chords can add the emotional tension that makes the hook impactful. Without it, the song would end up sounding bland and repetitive.
What Is A Half Diminished Chord?
A half-diminished chord is a type of seventh chord. It is a chord with a min 7th over a diminished triad. A diminished triad is a chord that has two minor 3rds stacked on top of the other.
Instead of a min-maj 3rd stack, like a minor chord, or a maj-min 3rd stack like a Major chord, a diminished chord is min-min 3rds. As the half diminished chord is a seventh chord, it generally has a ‘7’ written in the chord notation.
What Is A Diminished Guitar Chord?
Diminished chords are usually never used as anything other than a passing chord. They can sound unstable and dissonant on the guitar by themselves, almost unusable. The trick is to place them between the right chords and create great transitions. Generally speaking, diminished chords have a distinct jazzy quality to them, and they appear in varieties that emphasize voice leading and dominant functions.
An interesting feature of the diminished 7th chords is your style of playing their inversions on the fretboard. Since diminished 7th chords are built from all minor 3rds, you can move any fully diminished 7th chord fingering down or up three fret for an inversion (A rearranging of the notes creating a unique chord voicing). If you repeat the movement of three frets to the same chord fingering, you will have the next inversion.
Diminished Chord Books
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Summary of Diminished Chords
Diminished Chords are chords in which a minor 3rd (three-half steps over the root) is joined to a diminished 5th (six-half steps over the root). The timbre is unique: dark, tense, and unstable, making it sound off-putting if used without context.
I hope you now understand diminished chords and how to use them when playing musical instruments.