What are diminished chords, and how and when can you use them in your music?
Diminished chords are rarely used in popular styles of music, because they sound so strange and out of place. They simply are hard to “fit” into chord progressions.
Let’s first find out what a diminished chord really is, and then learn how you can use it to add tension into your music.
What is a Diminished Chord?
A diminished chord is created by stacking 2 minor 3rds on top of each other. Root + Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd = Diminished triad.
And a diminished 7th chord is created by adding yet another minor 3rd again. Root + Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd + Minor 3rd = Diminished 7th chord.
Why Diminished Chord sound Dissonant?
Well, mainly because they include an interval of a Tritone (6 half-steps) instead of the perfect 5th interval. And the Tritone is the most dissonant (high tension) interval in music.
And in the case of a diminished 7th chord, it even includes 2 tritones. Between the Root and the 5th (diminished 5th to be specific), and the 3rd and the 7th. Which can add even more tension.
How and When to use Diminished Chords
Now it should be apparent to you that diminished chords are great for adding high tension into your music, or a strange creepy feeling.
Diminished Voice Leading
If your next chord will include the note that you will “diminish” you can use the diminished chord to add tension into the voice leading. For example: D minor – D diminished – F minor. Or perhaps: D minor – G diminished – G minor.
Another example is to play a diminished 7th chord as a one time arpeggio (try a 2 octave arpeggio as well), which really creates a sense of mystery. For example: C – Eb – Gb – Bbb (double flat = A in this case).
Transition with Diminished Chords
Use diminished chords as passing chords or transition chords, meaning very briefly, to add a spice of strangeness before you resolve it to a more consonant chord. For example: E minor – C# diminished – B minor.
Jazz with the Bass
Jazz it up by going from a major chord to a diminished chord by moving the root note up a half-step. For example a progression like: D Major – Eb Diminished – E minor.
Evil Dance of the 5th
Create an “evil vibe” by dancing around the minor triad, diminished triad, and minor triad with an augmented 5th. Like this example:
- C – Eb – G (minor triad)
- C – Eb – Gb (diminished triad)
- C – Eb – G# (Ab Major in 1st inversion)
Now even though the final example above is an Ab Major chord in an inversion, if you really hammer home C as the tonal centre by for example playing the bass in octaves below the chord, I would personally label it as a C Min (#5), even though that is not a text book name.
The important thing is that dance of the 5th on the C Minor chord, it will sound very powerful and evil, and works great for dark and powerful soundtrack music.