Diminished Chords: The Most Misunderstood Of Them All
Ok, so you’ve mastered the major and minor triads. You know which chords get along and which need some distance from one other, but your chord progressions are getting a little too predictable.
You play around with some new ideas to change things up a bit and land on the triad built on the seventh degree of a major (or minor) scale. This chord really catches your ear, it seems so unpleasant.
You have played a diminished chord, and you can’t imagine how anybody could possibly make good music out of it.
This is a stage every great songwriter, producer, composer, and improviser has reached.
The point of this article is to help you through to the other side by shifting your perspective on diminished chords, the most misunderstood of all chords.
By the end, you will know exactly what goes into building diminished chords, the approaches you should use in order to achieve different effects with diminished chords, and a few examples of how world-renowned musicians have used these chords in popular music.
A chord is diminished if it contains a root note and the minor third and diminished fifth above the root note. The formula for a diminished triad is just that, nothing more and nothing less.
To build a diminished triad, you need only to start with a root note, add the note found a minor third above it, and then add the note found an additional minor third above the first minor third.
The Diminished Seventh Chord
In the realm of seventh chords, or chords containing four distinct notes, there are diminished seventh chords and half-diminished seventh chords.
The former adds yet another minor third stacked on top of a diminished triad whereas the latter instead adds a major third stacked on top of a diminished triad.
Diminished Chords In Context
Now that the technical bit is out of the way, diminished chords are characters just as much as they are collections of pitches. They act differently in different settings. Sometimes a diminished chord will stick out like a sore thumb, whereas other times it could go relatively unnoticed.
A lot of musicians are afraid of diminished chords because they don’t understand them. There’s a common misconception that they are erratic, unpredictable, and unfriendly.
Many producers will leave a diminished chord out of their chord progressions for fear that it will make a mess of things, like that one friend of yours who doesn’t get invited to parties anymore.
The truth of the matter is that the often-maligned diminished chord and its friends the diminished seventh and half-diminished seventh chords are perfectly agreeable as long as you understand the motivations that guide their behavior and use these to your advantage.
Ever since the days of silent films, diminished chords have played a special role in conveying moments of extreme tension to audiences.
The organist or piano player employed by the theater would be directed to land on a diminished triad or one of its 7th chord relatives to amplify the audience’s sense of unease and intensify their yearning for resolution. The fundamental source of this tension is the diminished fifth that forms the backbone of the chord.
The diminished fifth is a dissonance, something we do not find in major or minor triads. Major and minor triads, which make up the bulk of harmonies in popular music production and songwriting, contain only major and minor thirds and the perfect fifth, along with their inversions, all of which are consonant intervals.
Yet, this same interval is the source of tension in the incredibly common dominant 7th chord, which resolves so predictably to the tonic chord in countless examples of popular songwriting.
The strength of the dominant chord is its diminished fifth, which has this driving need to collapse into a third, as illustrated in the image below.
So why is the diminished chord, which is composed of the same dissonant interval as the dominant 7th, so much less popular than its distantly related chordal cousin? It has something to do with just how much resolution diminished chords require.
Resolving Diminished Chords
Resolving The Diminished Triad
As previously mentioned, diminished chords are made to resolve. They are not at peace with themselves, and their inner turmoil strikes a chord with an audience (pun intended), leaving the latter craving the move to the next chord.
Resolving a diminished chord involves collapsing the diminished fifth, which is six half steps apart, into either a major third or a minor third, either four or three half steps apart, respectively.
This third can be the bottom third or the top third of a triad. Resolving the chord by step makes for smooth voice leading, which is why diminished chords can so easily be used as passing chords.
Resolving The Diminished Seventh Chords
The fully diminished seventh chords follow the same conventions as the diminished triad, but the fourth voice in the chord means that there are two overlapping diminished fifths, both of which collapse into thirds.
For this reason, the fully diminished seventh chord can resolve equally smoothly to a major or minor triad, both of which are pictured below.
The half-diminished chord poses a different tendency from the diminished triad and fully-diminished 7th chord, as it contains only one diminished fifth.
That diminished fifth, the interval between the root note and the fifth of the chord, will collapse into a third just like the other diminished fifths do, but the chordal seventh has a bit more freedom to decide where it will go.
It could stay on as a common tone in the next chord, as pictured below in the move from the G half-dim 7 to the first-inversion F Major triad.
It could also resolve to the major chord that would result from collapsing the four voices inwards into three, as occurs in a vii half-dim 7 to I move. This is the best example of the half-diminished 7 chord’s dominant functionality in a major key.
Finally, this flexible chord could resolve to either of the two minor chords that would result from collapsing the four voices inwards into three.
How Do You Get The Desired Effect Out Of A Diminished Chord?
The Maximum Tension Effect
As previously mentioned, diminished chords have the same motivation regardless of their surroundings: they want to resolve, and they convey the kind of tension that will have your listener wanting them to resolve.
The question of context becomes important because it determines when they get to resolve and how much of a spotlight you are putting on the time from the onset of the tension to the resolution.
The more prominently you place the chord and the longer you draw out its resolution, the more uncomfortable you will make your audience.
Landing on a diminished triad on a strong beat, at the beginning or end of a phrase, and slowing down the harmonic pacing to remain there will make a clear statement. If this is by design, then the diminished chord can be a powerful tool.
In fact, the addition of another voice to turn your diminished triad into either a half-diminished or fully diminished chord, will twist the knife just a bit further and pack the most possible emotion into the moment. This move is, however, a bit cliche, so you can only get away with generating this effect so many times before your listener will start to get tired of it.
The Passing Chord
One of the most common uses of diminished chords outside of their clichéd silent movie context is as a bridge between the tonic (I) chord and the minor chord a whole step up (ii). As illustrated below, the diminished chord makes it possible to move by step from I to ii.
It would be jarring to land on the diminished chord, but as a passing chord, it makes it possible to transition more smoothly between the two chords.
A similar progression would be to move from I to vi with a diminished chord rooted in flat-6 in between.
This move in combination with an inversion in either the I chord or the flat-vi diminished and vi chords allows for a smooth stepwise line ascending in either the bass or the lead voice, respectively.
The easiest way to expand your chordal vocabulary and to start introducing diminished chords into your music is to find two chords, then figure out which diminished chord could fit between them for smooth voice leading.
The I to ii and I to vi moves are just two of the countless possible opportunities to sneak a diminished chord into a chord progression. In fact, the smoothness of its preferred resolution makes the diminished chord, when used between two chords as a passing chord, the opposite of a tense moment.
In this case, it is not highlighting tension but smoothing over friction between two chords. It acts essentially as a lubricant within a chord progression, making it easier to slip from one chord to the next.
Now that we have taken some time to get to know the theory behind the diminished chord, let’s take a look at some examples of diminished chords you’ve probably heard without realizing.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” – Mariah Carey
One example particularly fitting for the season in which this article is being written is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which features a half-diminished seventh chord as a passing chord under the words “Christmas is” at each instance of the refrain (heard the first time at 0:42).
“This Love” – Maroon 5
The fully diminished 7th chord in “This Love” is anything but a passing chord, as it figures prominently at the end of the chord progression in the verse (first heard at 0:08).
But in another way, it is part of a passing sequence in that the tension it introduces to the harmony in the form of two diminished fifths is mostly suspended through the first chord of the progression as it is reiterated.
As indicated in the image below, the D dim 7 chord holds one of its diminished fifths in common with the G 7 chord that follows it and then resolves to the C minor triad.
“Like A Boy” – Ciara
This song by Ciara features a half-diminished chord (first heard at 0:17) fulfilling a similar role to that of the fully diminished chord in Maroon 5’s “This Love.”
The D half-diminished 7 proceeds to a G 7 and then to a C minor triad.
“Because” – The Beatles
The Beatles offer a handful of examples of the diminished chord family in use in popular music, including such hits as “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Blue Jay Way,” “Michelle,” and “You Won’t See Me.”
George Harrison went on to write with diminished chords in “My Sweet Lord” and Paul McCartney did as well in “Live and Let Die”. “Because” is a particularly interesting example of how diminished chords can be used to meander from chord to chord in a smooth, stepwise fashion in all of the voices.
The use of a half-diminished seventh chord (first heard at 0:06) and a diminished triad (first heard at 0:28) help to give this song its haunting sound. But they are first and foremost a sort of lubricant allowing the instruments to form smooth, stepwise lines in their arpeggiated chords.
The smoothness of these lines is illustrated in the image below.
Diminished Chords, The Tool In Your Toolkit You Need Not Fear Any Longer
To conclude, diminished chords out in the open by themselves will always sound a little off-putting, which is only useful to musicians in specific cases.
As a passing chord, however, diminished chords are an underrated ingredient for making smooth lines in chord progressions. You need only to find two chords that need a bit of color to find the perfect spot for a diminished chord. In doing so, you’ll be putting your music in good company with the likes of “Because” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”