In this article, I discuss diminished chords and how your composition and arrangements can benefit from them.
I often feel like diminished chords aren't commonly found in pop or electronic music. I understand why this might be, as to simply play a diminished chord in isolation can sound rather unpleasant. For example, play the below chord (C Diminished - written shorthand as Cº). I'm sure, upon hearing it, you'll agree it's pretty gnarly and not particularly inspiring or pleasant.
A diminished chord is 3 minor third intervals stacked on top of one another. In the example above, the root note is C. The next note is E♭ (a minor third up from C). The next note is G♭ (a minor third up from E♭). The final note in the chord is A (a minor third up from G♭).
As mentioned above, if you play this chord, in isolation, it sounds a bit gross or nasty. It's a whole lot of dissonance and unpleasant harmonic tension. But therein lies its strength...
The Greater The Tension, The Greater The Release/Resolve
In both conventional musical theory and contemporary disciplines, there's a wealth of discourse that supports the notion that good music utilises significant tension and release/resolve; be it melodically, rhythmically or harmonically. Diminished chords, with their gnarly, tension-filled harmonic construction therefore serve as powerful counterpoints to more harmonically sweet, comfortable or familiar chord voicing. Let's explore an example.
Firstly, familiarise yourself with the following chords:
1 - B♭∆7 (major 7)
2 - C (major)
3 - Am7 (minor 7)
4 - Dm7 (minor 7 - second inversion)
Now play through the above chords at a medium tempo, allowing two beats per chord, like so:
| B♭∆7 / C / | Am7 / Dm7 / |
You'll notice it's a perfectly pleasant chord sequence, the likes of which you've probably heard a great many times, in a great many songs.
Now substitute the C major for a B♭º, like so:
Using the same medium tempo and rhythm, play the following chord sequence:
| B♭∆7 / B♭º / | Am7 / Dm7 / |
Hopefully you will notice that this simple substitution increases the harmonic tension (and arguably interest), meaning that the Am7 and Dm7 feel as though they have a greater degree of resolve (or a more satisfying resolution).
Utilising diminished chords in a "passing" manner such as this (placed between a major and minor chord - or vice versa), is where (I believe) they are strongest. Their nature is such that you'll rarely want to start or end a passage of music on a diminished chord, however nesting diminished chords between sweet sounding chords only serves to amplify the pleasantness of the sweet or resolute chords.
Unpacking Diminished Chords
Diminished chords are easy to learn, as there are only three chords to memorise. Due to their construction of stacked minor third intervals, their inversions are also different diminished chords (it all just depends on what your bass/root note is). For example, Cº, E♭º, G♭º and Aº all contain the same four notes, therefore, you simply have to change their inversion to correspond with the root note, like so:
I.e: learn Cº and you've also learned E♭º, G♭º and Aº. Therefore, the only diminished chords necessary to learn are Cº, D♭º and Dº.
D♭º (which inverted, can be Eº, Gº and B♭º)
Dº (which inverted, can be Fº, A♭º and Bº)
This structural phenomenon provides diminished chords with a versatility unlike most other chord types. Augmented major chords have a similar structural characteristic (whereby a chord's inversions can be considered either an inversion or the the same type of chord with a different root note), but that's a discussion for another time.
In my experience, if your'e playing a diminished chord, you can pick any note from the diminished chord and utilise it as a bass note, without invoking any further dissonance. It's fair to say that, despite their naturally dissonant nature, they're surprisingly harmonically robust and clear-cut in this regard. This also affords you more freedom to tailor bass-lines that best support the directional movement of your harmony.
One of the reasons diminished chords are so popular in Jazz, is that they provide the player with a wonderful springboard into key-breaking melodic improvisation. Furthermore, due to their stacked minor third construction, in most scenarios, every note of a diminished chord is also a "leading" note, meaning that despite being momentarily dissonant or outside of the key-signature, the sense of resolve once the player returns to the key signature is such that is justifies or legitimises the dissonance that proceeded the resolve (and in turn the resolve is all the more powerful).
Returning to above example of:
| B♭∆7 / B♭º / | Am7 / Dm7 / |
Program this chord progression into your DAW on a simple, soft poly-synth or electric piano tone. Set it to loop and attempt to improvise over it on a D-minor pentatonic scale (blues it up with the addition of an A♭ - see below).
D-minor Pentatonic (Blues) Scale - I've also included an E in the scale, as I often like to incorporate the 2 of a minor scale for occasional, additional melancholic colour.
Now, amidst your improvisation, whenever you are playing over the B♭º, instead of playing the D-minor pentatonic blues scale, try simply playing an arpeggio up or down the notes of the B♭º, resolving back onto the D-minor pentatonic blues scale for the Am7 chord. Hopefully you can hear how this is a potentially powerful means of adding harmonic colour, spice and jazziness to your music.
Improvisation aside, this method of utilising the notes of a diminished chord is also a powerful means with which to increase variety and interest in a more structured melodic form or counter melody contained within your arrangement.
Diminished chords have a distinctive character and are very powerful. This naturally means that there are instances where they are simply not appropriate.
However, it also means that they can be the perfect vessel for reigniting your inspiration if/when you hit a sticking point in your compositional process.
If you already use them, great! If you don't typically use them and/or have shied away from them due to their dissonant nature, I hope this article has helped shine a light on their potential as well as how to get a little more out of them in a practical application. They may not work for the music you're making right now, but they may come in handy in the future. After all, it's better to know about them and not need them, than need them and not know about them.
Happy music making :-)