Good songwriting needs a certain sense of tension and drama, and the diminished chord is a great and easy way to get it.
Nothing is worse than writing the same tired song structure over and over again. All people, not just songwriters, tend to choose the easiest path in life—whether you’re trying to write music or tie our shoes…
With that in mind, it only makes sense that it’s hard to add new, challenging ideas to your work.
So how do you lift your songwriting out of the rut? Well, by learning one simple diminished chord note pattern, you’ll be able to add an entirely new color and tension to your music.
Here’s how to use diminished chords to add some narrative to your sound and inspire better songwriting.
What are diminished chords?
Diminished chords, also known as diminished triads or dim chords, are dissonant chords that combine a root note with two minor thirds above the root. For example: A diminished chord built on the root of C would include Eb and Gb.
They provide a sense of musical conflict, making the resolution back to consonant chords more impactful.
Composers often use diminished chords to inject a sense of drama, mystery and chaos into their music. Y’know those old silent movies where a villain traps the hero in the path of an approaching train? The music in those types of scenes is full of diminished chords.
Think of diminished chords like the point in a movie that gets really intense and dramatic. In music, that narrative motif is achieved with diminished chords. You’ll find diminished chords in songs like “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley:
And “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong:
How to build the diminished chords
Learning how to use this powerful compositional tool is actually easier than you think. By memorizing one simple semitone pattern you’ll learn how to add the diminished chord, and all that rich suspense that comes with it, anywhere in your music.
In music, tones and semitones—which are sometimes called whole-steps and half-steps—represent the distances between pitches. Different combinations of these tones and semitones make up all the intervals and chords we hear in music.
On the guitar, a semitone is represented by the distance of one fret and the tone is represented by the distance of two frets.
To learn how to build the diminished chord, you’ll need to memorize two intervals: the minor third and the tritone.
You might be thinking “what’s a minor third and what’s a tritone?” Don’t worry, it’ll make more sense when you look at the keys.
A minor third is made up of three semitones. Here’s what it looks like with the root of C:
A tritone is made up of six semitones. Here’s what it look like with the root of C again:
In music, the root note is the note you choose to build a chord on. Adding a minor third and a tritone above the root will give you your diminished chord.
For example, if C is your root (or starting note), adding the notes Eb and Gb will give you a basic diminished triad in the key of C:
Once you’re comfortable building a diminished chord with the root of C, try this pattern out with other root notes.
Where to use diminished chords
The diminished chord can be used in many ways, but one of its best functions is as a replacement for the V chord in common chord progressions
So for example, if you set up the common I – V – vi – IV chord progression, your diminished chord would be the second chord taking the place of the V.
The diminished chord and the V chord share most of the same notes, but the diminished chord brings a heightened sense of urgency and tension in music that serves lots of moods and atmospheres well.
But even when its not being used as a replacement for the V, diminished chords are capable of adding an entirely new dimension to any chord progression.
Diminished means replenished
Simple music theory tools like diminished chords can have huge benefits for your songwriting as well as your overall sound.
Keep diminished chords in mind the next time you hit a songwriting rut. Use them into your progressions to add suspense, narrative and drama to your songs.
And remember, don’t be scared of theory!
Music theory is a big subject. Keep it simple by using the little things as much as you can in your productions.
You’ll end up with a wonderful knowledge base that’ll help you today AND in all your future sessions.