In the world of music, a vast majority of the chords that are used are either major or minor chords. These are very simple to use, and generally have a very easy to listen to sound to them. You don’t have to be an incredible musician to know how to use major and minor chords, and they’re typically some of the first chords that most musicians learn. They’re very accessible, and make up the majority of harmonic in virtually all songs in the western world.
But in the major scale, there is one chord that doesn’t see nearly as much use as typical major and minor chords. It’s a chord that is generally seen as being a little bit more obscure, and less immediately usable in the context of most songs. On first listen, diminished chords can seem dissonant and unusable, which makes it hard for a lot of people to use them.
But all of these elements just mean that diminished chords have a whole lot of color. They are chords that generally stand out a lot due to their very poignant sound, which means that they are excellent for grabbing the attention of a listener. Even though they may not be the most immediately gratifying chord to listen to, diminished chords stick out incredibly well, and can have a huge effect on how a song works.
This is what diminished chords are, how they work, and how you can use them in your own music.
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What is a Diminished Chord?
A diminished chord is a chord based on the seventh note in a major scale. In a major scale, the first, fourth, and fifth chords are major chords, and the second, third, and sixth chords are minor. The seventh chord is unique, because the notes that make up that chord are unlike every other chord.
Major chords are made up of a major third with a minor third on top, making up a perfect fifth interval. Minor chords are similar, except the minor third is on the bottom and the major third is on top. Diminished chords are different from both of these, because they are made up of two minor third intervals, which create an overall diminished fifth interval. This gives diminished chords a very dark and dissonant sound that is very unlike the generally consonant sound that major and minor chords generally have.
Diminished chords by their nature sound very tense and unresolved, which is due to the fact that all the notes are much closer to each other relatively. This generally serves to make the notes sound much more dissonant, because closeness is usually directly correlated to dissonance.
The diminished fifth inside of the diminished chord is also a very noteworthy part of the sound. Diminished fifths are commonly known as tritone in the music theory world, and they are important because they are the middle point between two notes that are an octave apart. To many people, the tritone is the most dissonant sounding interval in music. This dissonance has become a sound that is well known in rock and blues music, due to the much more emotional and raw content of those songs. But tritones were actually banned in church music during the middle ages; their dissonance led to them being known as “The Devil’s Interval.”
How to Construct Diminished Chords
When creating a diminished chord, it’s important to think about the intervals that go between the notes. Since the intervals in the chord are two minor thirds, the best way to construct a diminished chord is to choose your root, and then play the notes three semitones and six semitones above that root. That will successfully create a diminished chord.
In the major scale, diminished chords are constructed by playing the seventh, second, and fourth scale degrees at the same time. These compose the two minor thirds, and make up a diminished chord within the key, and it keeps everything tonal with the song’s key.
How and When to Use Diminished Chords
The most important thing to know regarding diminished chords is how to use them. Due to their very colorful sound, it can often be hard to find the right place to use them, but there are many trying and proven places where diminished chords work very well. While there are technically almost infinite ways to experiment with the placement of diminished chords, these are some placements that work well, and that you can implement into your music.
Leading Into the Major One Chord
One of the most common and best uses of diminished chords is as a passing chord leading to the One, or the tonic chord of the key. This is very interesting because diminished chords are characterized by being very unstable sounding with a lot of tension, while the One chord is incredibly stable and released. When trying to create a lot of tension and release in a song, an incredible move to make is putting the diminished Seven chord right before the major One. This can be incredibly powerful, and lead to the “tension and release” element that so many songwriters and composers are looking for.
As a Bridge into the Minor Six Chord.
Another great way to use the dominant Seven chord is to make it function as a bridge into the Six chord of the song. When the song is in a minor key, the Six chord technically functions as the tonic, or the One chord, so this is functionally fairly similar to the previous method. However, when moving the chordal feeling from the incredibly tense and high energy Dominant Seven to the deep and stately Minor Six, it can create a dynamic that continues and expands tension in a really beautiful way.
Wherever it Best Works
Fundamentally, the best way to find out where a chord works in the context of your song is just to mess around with it and see what fits best. When creating songs, feel free to do something that’s really out there, and just go for it. Sometimes, the best creative decision you can make is something that you’re totally uncomfortable with, and is completely outside of your comfort zone. It’s okay to experiment with different chords, and see how they fit!
The whole point of music is to make songs that are new and unique. Throwing in an interesting chord is something that can set your song apart from the others, and give people a really good hook to listen to. Feel free to take that dangerous step, and just put your music out there in whatever way you want to.
How Unison Can Help
Often, when creating chords and chord progressions in productions, it can be a hassle to draw or play every single chord in the song. That’s why Unison created it’s MIDI chord pack; so that anyone can have whatever chords they want at the simple touch of a button. These are professional composed chords that are sure to take your song from good to great, and truly fill out your sound.
If you need inspiration in regards to how you’re going to fill out those chord progressions sonically, one of the best moves you can make is to use Unison’s Serum presets. These are professionally designed presets that are sure to stick out to listeners, and make an impact on the song as a whole for the better.