Expand your vocabulary
John Wheatcroft explores how diminished chords and arpeggios can be combined and used in all styles of music.
Diminished chords are among the most useful devices in music. They are a cornerstone of three-note harmony, along with Major, Minor and Augmented. When extended to incorporate a 7th degree, our three-note triad goes in one of two directions: to create a four-note Half-diminished chord or arpeggio; or the four-note Diminished 7th. We call this chord symmetrical, as each note is situated a minor 3rd (three frets) apart, dividing the octave into four equal parts.
The purpose of this lesson is to define the construction and sonic properties of these chords, moving on to highlight a selection applications for both ‘Half’ and ‘Full’ Diminished across all musical styles.
We can find evidence of a Diminished triad in the Major scale: when extended to become a 7th chord, we see the Half-diminished or m7b5. You also find examples of this chord in both Melodic Minor (R 2 3 4 5 6 7) and Harmonic Major (R 2 3 4 5 b6 7) scales too.
To find the full Diminished 7th chord we need to look elsewhere. A potential location for both varieties is the Harmonic Minor (R 2 b3 4 5 b6 7); and no Diminished scale search would be complete without looking at the Diminished scale itself (R 2 b3 4 b5 b6 bb7).
Today we’ll be putting these scales to one side and restricting our gaze to chordal applications, frequently used sequences and substitutions that are commonly used in music from a broad range of composers and songwriters across all genres, from pop to heavy metal, and jazz to classical.
I have devised 15 musical examples, each showing diminished harmony at work, either as a triad, the Half-diminished chord or arpeggio, or the complete Diminished 7th. We end with a musical piece based around a reharmonised minor blues sequence, two choruses in length, with all the concepts we have looked at expressed in both chord and single-note form. Once you have worked through these ideas, make sure you invent your own short etudes with a view to incorporating them in the music that you play. Make sure you support all this study and practice with an equivalent amount of listening and analysis. It’s vital to connect your body and all your senses when you create
My sister brought home some Gabriel-era Genesis records, and they had inverted and diminished chords, which made the songs extremely intriguing. Yngwie Malmsteen
music, so your techniques are communicating clearly with your mind, applying the correct patterns and shapes and monitoring all this aural activity carefully as we go - so remember: fingers, brain, eyes and ears!
Theory tells us there are seven natural notes, labelled alphabetically from A to G, along with the five associated flat or sharp notes in the tone gaps between, with the exception of E/F and B/C, which are a semitone apart and therefore require no bridging tone. For many purposes these notes can be considered to be one and the same, so Bb and A# occupy the same fret location and are essentially identical. From a theory perspective, however, they serve different purposes, governed as they are by a number of rules related to scale construction, intervallic relationships and so on.
The numeric value of an interval relates to the number of alphabetical steps needed govern its spelling. So, a minor 3rd up from C must be an E note of some kind, although in this case the required distance dictates this note needs to be flattened, so the correct answer would be Eb and not D#. Likewise, a flattened (dimininished) 5th from C would be Gb and not F#.
When we look at full-diminished 7ths we get into the world of double-flats. Essentially this is the same distance as a major 6th but, theoretically, if we were to use C as our root, the correct answer for a diminished 7th would Bbb and not A natural. The spelling for C diminished would be C, Eb, Gb, Bbb and not C, D#, F#, A, although they live in the same place on the fretboard and sound the same.
When presenting parts containing diminished harmony, one has to find the balance between readability and theoretical accuracy. The spelling of a note has great significance when it comes to the relationship between it and the surrounding harmonic and melodic options, so it’s good to know the correct spelling. But my band mates would kill me if I presented them with a score full of double-flats, double-sharps and so on, especially if I’m expecting them to read this at first sight. Therefore, a working compromise needs to be made to attempt to balance these two factors, so it’s not uncommon to see knowingly acceptable ‘misspellings’ in lead sheets, scores and transcriptions.