You rarely hear about diminished chords in modern music, that’s mostly because they aren’t very pleasing to the ear and they take a bit of skill to use well.
Once you know how to use them though, they can add a whole new dimension to your musical vocabulary.
We’ll be looking at ways to use diminished chords in music that make your songs more interesting without making them chaotic:
- Using Diminished chords to create tension
- Diminished chords and upward resolution
- Diminished chords as a bridge between whole steps
- Pivot to new keys
- Making the tonic diminished
- iio-V-I pattern
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to use diminished chords.
Some of the terminologies may be strange right now, but by the time you finish this article, you’re going to be really excited to get to try it out!
What are diminished chords?
So, what are diminished chords anyway? In order to discuss that, we have to discuss intervals.
Chords are built up of notes that are at set intervals apart that create the harmony of a chord. Diminished chords are essentially minor chords but with a flattened 5th as well.
Diminished chords are the 7th chord in any major key, which is also why they lend so well to resolving a progression. They tend to create a lot of tension because of those two flat intervals.
How to build diminished chords?
To build a diminished chord, you need to know the interval formula.
In this case, it would be 1st, flat 3rd, and flat 5th.
So B diminished would be B(1), D(b3), and F(b5).
You can also get a diminished 7th, which has what you’d call a double flattened 7th in it, in this case, A flat.
It’s that simple.
What scales have diminished chords?
Well, we can start with the obvious ones: The major and minor scales.
The major scale has a diminished at its seventh note, and the minor has a diminished second. Did you know that there is also a diminished scale though?
It’s an octatonic, symmetric scale with the sequence of tone, semitone, tone, semitone, tone, semitone, and tone.
The melodic minor also has diminished chords.
What’s the function of diminished chords?
Diminished chords often create a sense of tension drama and suspense in music.
They’re pretty dark in their tone due to the dissonance created in their note relationships.
They are also chords that have a tonal instability due to the flattened fifth, which makes them great tools for tonal resolution.
They can also be used for changing keys due to that instability.
I found that diminished chords also pair well with major 7th chords in major scales, mostly because the tonic major 7th in a major scale includes the note of the diminished chord.
C major 7 has a B in it, and B is the diminished 7th so they pair quite well together.
Diminished chords also make for great stepping-stone chords. In a major key, the 4th and 5th have a whole step between them and you can very nicely fit a diminished chord in between those two chords- but we’ll look into that in more detail just now.
What are diminished seventh chords?
Diminished seventh chords are tetra chords (that is chords built of four notes) that include a double flattened 7th.
I mentioned it briefly before, but to go a little more into detail on how to play one, I’ll explain what it means to double flatten a note.
A note becomes double-flatted when you bring it down two steps from its base. A note can also become double flat when it’s already flat according to the scale.
It’s more just a matter of theoretical thinking than actual practicality because oftentimes the double-flatted note is the same as a sixth note.
6 ways to incorporate diminished chords in your songs
1. Using Diminished chords to create tension
Diminished chords are perfect for creating tension in songs, especially if you add them into a progression without allowing for a proper resolution.
Playing the diminished chord often tends to leave you with a sense of dread or darkness, and most musicians have used this to allow for an easy resolution to a lighter chord, but you can take advantage of that dark tone and stay in it.
This is particularly useful for creating drama in a song or creating a tense moment for a buildup before transitioning back into the chorus.
A fun example of this is the bridge/buildup in Bonnie Taylor’s Holding out for a hero.
2. Diminished chords and upward resolution
Being that diminished chords are often the 7th chord of a played key, they pair really well with a transition into the tonic note of the key.
For instance, playing a B diminished chord as a step from the F or G major into a C:
Am | G | Bdim | C
Or even using a B diminished for a whole bar can create enough tension to make the resolution that much sweeter.
I find another good way to use a diminished chord is to play a two-chord progression between the diminished 7th and either the major 1st or major 5th.
3. Diminished chords as a bridge between whole steps
Another great use for diminished chords is to use them as a quick step between chords that have a whole step between them.
Take, for instance, playing the major 4th, and 5th-they’re both a step apart from each other.
That means there are two half steps between them, and you could play a diminished chord in between them.
For example, in the Key of C, you could play an F# diminished chord between F and G major as a transition:
C | F F#dim | G | Am
4. Pivot to new keys
Because of the instability of the diminished key, and because it shares many of its notes with many different keys, it makes it a great pivot between keys.
Back to B diminished.
B diminished is made up of B, D, and F.
The key of G has a D major in it or you could transition to the key of D major since D major is a neighboring key of C.
You would essentially turn the B diminished into a B minor though.
This will sound admittedly unusual, but it will still feel like a resolution in comparison to the diminished chord.
5. Making the tonic diminished
Starting the song on a diminished chord would sound weird, but you can do this by playing the tonic as a diminished.
It gives a nice embellishment to the chord in question, for example playing an A minor key and playing the A minor as an A diminished.
I’d say that using this technique is best suited to minor keys because how the minor chord is one step short of the diminished chord.
A major chord would require you to flatten both the third and fifth, but you’re welcome to give it a try and see how it fits.
6. iio-V-i pattern
This pattern is pretty unusual. I’m willing to bet that you’ve never even heard of it before. It tends to give a dark, mid-century feel.
It pairs really well with minor keys more than major keys too. In this case, starting with a minor first and a diminished second.
This pattern is sometimes seen in melodramatic music in operas or plays.
Basically, it’s a very dramatic and dark progression, but it doesn’t mean you can’t use it to do something unique and creative.
Another progression is to use a minor key and play something like this progression:
i | iio | III | V
In this progression, the fifth would generally be a minor fifth, but the major fifth gives that extra tension before resolving back to the tonic.
The major third, in this case, if we were playing in E minor, would be G major, which gives a bit of brightness and release to the progression.
Hopefully, by taking a look at the different ways you can implement diminished chords, it’s made it painfully obvious that the limits are your imagination.
Music is very elastic and while it can be stated that there is such a thing as a cacophonous noise, it can also be said that music requires intent.
If your intent is well tempered with knowledge and skill, the rules become more of a suggestion than anything written in stone.
In fact, the only thing I could say is that you are most encouraged to experiment.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.