How to Use Diminished Chords in Your Songwriting

June 7, 2020

Diminished chords are a frequently employed type of chord in many different types of musical progressions seen in popular music today. They appear so frequently in part due to the easy-to-master auditory mechanics behind them. These make them a delight to work with in making more nuanced chord progressions in your songwriting.

A diminished chord often sounds eerie or inharmonious when isolated from the songs they belong to, but this belies their true beauty when they are used correctly in songwriting. These chords can often add extra vigor and feel to your songs than if they otherwise lacked diminished chords in their progressions. While you have likely heard them many times, you may be wondering, just what are they?

What are Diminished Chords?

Don’t let the name fool you, “diminished” here refers to this chord’s musical properties and how it works, not its objective quality as a chord by any means! Diminished chords are simply a type of chord used in songwriting that consists of a coupling of a minor 3rd note with a diminished 5th note. Minor 3rds are notes with 3 half steps above their root, and a diminished 5th, which helps derive the name of diminished chords, is a note with 6 half steps above the root.

Diminished chords work as wonderful bridge-builders between other types of chords, but they have their own standalone uses as well. They can really help spice up certain songs that only use a handful of chords as well. This is due to their distinctive sound, which when isolated can come off as discordant or even harsh.

However, when carefully inserted into the right auditory context or chord progression, in other words, these chords can be quite effective at furthering your song’s evolution to its final draft. What’s more, diminished chords are a great chord to experiment with when you want to expand your song structure repertoire and general composing skills!

Before we dive further into these various topics, here is a great video exploring the diminished chord in general. The video also explains why it is often a great idea for you to use these types of chords in your songwriting, as well as its different attributes.

How to Build Diminished Chords

Before we go about working with diminished chords, it is invaluable to know that there is more than just one type of them. There are a few different ones and each one is different structurally and does slightly different things with various notes.

Types of Diminished Chords

When working with diminished chords, one fundamental thing to know is that there are different types of them. There are 3 overall, corresponding to C°,  C#°, and D°. They are as follows:

These main types are the diminished triad, the half-diminished chord, and the regular diminished 7th chord. A diminished major meanwhile is an example of a diminished chord that contains both a diminished triad and a major 7th.

Many more can all be considered the result of any combination of these 3. This is due to the fact that any single diminished chord corresponds to 4 identical companion chords with there being 12 notes overall. Let’s explore some of these in greater detail.

Diminished 7ths & l-ii Bridges

Diminished 7ths can be tackled a number of ways, but one of the easiest and intuitive ways is to build them on a semitone that lies below whatever chord is next in the progression. With this, you will be able to form a natural transition between 2 of the major chords in your song that is not only easy on the ears but adds more auditory flavour to your music writing. These are called l-ii bridges in this context.

Diminished Triads

Diminished triads are great as the musical equivalent of a Lego block. While they are also a chord in of themselves, they are frequently a component used in half-diminished chords and diminished 7th chords.

Here is an example via Wikipedia of a diminished triad built on the note B:

Diminished triad

This same article is also handy with an example of a diminished triad expressed in note C, where Co, contains the pitches C–E♭–G♭ as well as some excellent technical overview of the chord’s attributes.

Half-Diminished 7th Chords

Also worthy of mention, half-diminished chords are also frequently employed when writing music. For the sake of brevity, some helpful technical information from Wikipedia is linked below the diagram.

The theory and mechanics for this type of diminished chord can be as involved a topic as any of the other three diminished chords. For your additional consideration, a link to the piece by Brahm for listening is also provided below!

A half-diminished chord as used in Brahm’s Intermezzo, Opera 119. Here you can watch and hear the half-diminished 7th chord in action:

Classical music, depending on the genre and time period, is often thriving with different examples of the diminished chord in its varying forms. Usage of diminished chords have grown popular and lost popularity in a recurring cycle over time. Who knows, perhaps you might be one of the artists to help propel this family of chord types back into mainstream popularity!

Examples of what Diminished Chords Sound Like

One can find an amazing example of the usage of diminished chord triads in David Bowie’s iconic song “Space Oddity.” The following is a video demonstrating the chord progressions utilized in the song alongside the lyrics. Studying such works for their techniques and quirks is never a bad idea for inspiration when writing music.

Here is an excellent video showing various progressions and overall exploring diminished chords, with ample auditory examples provided:

Another great example of a video demonstration of different diminished chords can be found here:

For many, once you have gotten the hang of looking for them in popular music, it becomes much easier to study and learn from how other artists use them in their respective songs. You will be able to decipher how many artists use diminished chords either to make their songs even more interesting, convey a specific mood and tone, or to produce unusual or rarely used progressions.

What Diminished Chords are Used For

To summarize, there are quite a few different things that diminished chords are used for in songwriting. Some of these most notably include using an existing chord to build a diminished 7th chord on a semitone note below it, providing a smooth transition between two chords. This highlights the diminished cord’s main aspect as a harmony-builder for songs as well as a source of additional auditory dynamics. Indeed, without diminished chords, many popular songs throughout time would not be recognizable.

Another great use of the diminished chord is in enlivening specific tones and moods in your music writing. They can infuse your chord progressions with not only tension and vigor but also silky tranquility when paired with the right regular chords. One should take note however that they should be placed carefully before finalizing your song’s drafts.

When put in an inharmonious spot, your diminished chords can make your song not only sound off from what you wanted, but it can also make it unintentionally eerie. This can perhaps compare the diminished chord to a double-edged sword analogy.

While it is very versatile and effective for chord transitions and adding dynamic, when done so in the wrong parts of a song it can cause problems when not addressed. These can include altering the sound to what you did not originally intend, put off potential listeners even if they enjoyed the initial song intro, or possibly even hamper your faith in your ability to use this chord.

In Harmonious Conclusion

As you can see, the diminished chord in its various forms has many uses thanks to its versatile and unique properties compared to other chords. Should you ever run into difficulty with them, always remember that every mistake is simply a learning experience.

Never give up, for once you have gotten the reigns, the diminished chord is another great tool in your songwriting repertoire!

If you're just starting to write your own piece - here is a step-by-step guide that will walk you through the process and provide with detailed instructions that you can rely on in your creative journey.

With all of that in mind, we wish you good luck in your music writing, and hope that these resources help and inspire you!

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