Music Theory

Understanding Diminished Chords

With major and minor chords being so popular in modern Western music, sometimes we forget how to be truly creative and think outside the box.

Diminished chords aren’t a newfound musical sound, nor are they unknown. However, they are underutilized as they don’t fit into the norm of having a consonant (pleasing) sound, as diminished chords are dissonant (displeasing).

In today’s post we’ll be looking at the diminished chord and…

  • What they are
  • How you build them
  • Their relationship to scales
  • And how you can use them in your song

Let’s get started.

What is a diminished chord?

The best way to describe a diminished chord is to think of a startling, unsettled sound that causes you to be concerned – here you have met a chord that causes tension, a type of diminished chord.

Out of context, it can sound alarming, unpleasant and a chord you perhaps want to avoid in your music.

Let’s listen to a row of diminished chord chords – B dim, C dim, D dim and E dim.

I agree with how you’re feeling. I don’t like that either.

How do you build a diminished chord?

A diminished chord is built using a diminished triad which consists of 3 notes, and is built by stacking a minor 3rd (3 semitones from the root) and a diminished 5th (6 semitones from the root) giving you the chord formula: R – b3 – b5. It is also known as stacking two minor 3rds.

How do you build a diminished chordPin

For example if C is our root note, Eb is our minor 3rd which is 3 semitones away from C (b3), and Gb is our diminished 5th which is 3 semitones away from Eb, and 6 semitones away from C (b5).

C diminished is: C Eb Gb.

Diminished chords and scales

In a major scale, diminished chords are the 7th chord in the scale. For example in A major we craft the following chords:

  1. A major
  2. B minor
  3. C# minor
  4. D major
  5. E major
  6. F# minor
  7. G# diminished

In a minor scale, the order is rotated starting from the 6th chord from the major scale, this is known as the relative minor. Therefore, F# is the relative minor to A major. Diminished chords are the 2nd chord in the scale.

  1. F# minor
  2. G# diminished
  3. A major
  4. B minor
  5. C# minor
  6. D major
  7. E major

How to use diminished chords

In modern Western music the diminished chord is underused (compared to major, minor, 7th chords) as many feel the sound causes too much tension, and with common chord progressions such as 1645 and 1564 being the perfect amount of tension and release for storytelling, the diminished chord doesn’t have a place.

So how can you utilize the diminished chord in your music subtly?

1. Bridge between two chords

You can use a diminished chord as a bridge between two chords which acts as a sudden dramatic change in dynamics but is quickly resolved to a stable chord –  your tonic chord.

Here is an example using a common chord progression 1645 in A major:

  • A -> F#m -> D -> (E -> G#dim) -> A

2. Add to a pivotal moment of the song

If we are to think of music creation from a lyrical stand point, then consider using a diminished chord at a pivotal lyrical moment of a song.

This can add variation to a somewhat bland progression and make a specific part of a song stand out and become memorable.

For example you could have a lyric phrase of “I just want to let out a scream…,” and on the word ‘scream’ you would blast out a diminished chord, adding extra stress and tension.

3. Tension to resolution

Use a chromatic diminished chord a semitone below or above a prominent chord in the scale, such as the tonic, dominant and subdominant, then resolve it.

Here is an example using C diminished to D major – both don’t appear in the same scale:

  • C Eb Gb -> D F# A

We can also use the ‘key’ to cause brief tension to resolution, by resolving the root notes diminished chord to its minor or major chord:

A diminished chord (A C Eb) to A major chord (A C#E):

A diminished chord (A C Eb) to A minor chord (A C E):

4. Swap out for a chord with similar notes

Substitute a chord that contains similar notes. Let’s take B diminished as our example which contains the notes: B D F. In the scale of C major, two chords share similarities with B diminished – G major and D minor.

  • G B D (B & D are in Bdim)
  • D F A (D & F are in B dim)

Common chord progression 1645 in C major which is C Am F G, could now become C Am F Bdim.

Here’s the original:

Now here’s with the G major replaced with B diminished:

It’s over to you

You don’t need to feel intimidated by the alarming sound of diminished chords, as you can subtly sneak them into your chord progression easily.

By adding in a diminished chord you can create that extra dynamic which will make your music interesting and dramatic without being off putting to the listener.