Diminished Chords – 5 Essential Piano Techniques
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Are you a chord collector? That’s right, a chord collector. Some students have the habit of collecting information about chords in the same way that other collectors accumulate coins, stamps, baseball cards or plush toys. Generally speaking, collectors do not make common use of whatever it is that they collect…and for good reason. That’s because collectables tend to appreciate with age. In addition, a “used” collectable item is worth far less than a “like new” or “mint condition” item. Unfortunately, piano chords do not appreciate with age, and they are virtually useless if not used. Therefore, in today’s Quick Tip, Diminished Chords: 5 Essential Piano Techniques, Jonny May will teach you how to use diminished chords in your piano playing. You’ll learn:
- Introduction to Diminished Chords
- 5 Essential Piano Techniques with Diminished 7th Chords
If your knowledge of diminished piano chords has been collecting dust, this lesson is for you!
The topic of diminished chords is often confusing for piano students. There are several contributing factors for this experience. Firstly, there is not just one type of “diminished chord” in music theory. Secondly, diminished chords are dissonant, which can make them seem unusual and difficult to apply. Lastly, even though diminished chords are common, they appear much less frequently than major and minor triads as well as major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chords. In fact, diminished chords are often excluded entirely from beginner piano repertoire, which simply increases students’ perplexity on this topic.
Today’s lesson, Diminished Chords: 5 Essential Piano Techniques, focuses particularly on how to use fully diminished 7th chords. However, in the next section we will identify and differentiate each of the diminished chord types.
Since there are three chord types that contain the word “diminished,” the phrase “diminished chords” is more general than specific. The chord most associated with this phrase is the diminished triad, a three-note chord built by stacking two minor 3rds. The term “diminished” comes into play because the interval from the root to the 5th is a diminished 5th. (Think: Root, ♭3, ♭5).
Diminished 7th Chords
The diminished 7th chord (aka “fully diminished”) is built by stacking three minor 3rds. This chord is essentially a diminished triad plus a diminished 7th. However, when playing this chord, many players think of the diminished 7th interval in terms of its enharmonically equivalent…a major 6th. (Think: Root, ♭3, ♭5, 𝄫7 or Root, ♭3, ♭5, 6). Since fully diminished 7th chords contain only minor 3rds, they have a unique symmetrical structure.
Half-Diminished 7th Chords
Finally, the half-diminished 7th chord contains a stack of two minor 3rds on bottom with a major 3rd on top. In a half-diminished 7th chord, the interval from root to 7th is a minor 7th. (Think: Root, ♭3, ♭5, ♭7). Half-diminished 7th chords are also called minor 7(♭5), especially among jazz musicians. Therefore, the symbols Cø7 and Cm7(b5) refer to the same chord: C–Eb–Gb–Bb.
- To learn all 12 diminished triads, check out Piano Triads–Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented Chords (Level 2).
- For a deep dive on diminished 7th chords and half-diminished 7th chords, check out Diminished & Half Dim 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2).
Part of the enigma of diminished 7th chords for many students is that when considering the five main categories of 7th chords (major 7th, minor 7th, dominant 7th, half-diminished, fully diminished), the fully diminished 7th chord or is the only type that cannot be found in the major scale. So where do fully diminished 7th chords come from? The source scale for diminished 7th chords is the harmonic minor scale.
A Harmonic Minor Scale
In particular, when you stack 3rds on the 7th tone of any harmonic minor scale, the resulting chord is “fully diminished” and contains all minor 3rds. For example, in the key of A minor, the 7th chord built on the raised 7th tone from the harmonic minor scale is G♯°7.
A Harmonic Minor Harmony
In addition to the harmonic minor scale, the diminished scale also produces fully diminished 7th chords and is a “go to” scale for jazz improv over diminished 7th chords.
Unlike most other chords which have 12 unique transpositions, there are only 3 unique diminished 7th chords. This is because most other chords are asymmetrical (with the exception of the augmented triad). The symmetrical structure of diminished 7th chords means that all its chord tones are equidistant—a minor 3rd interval to be exact. Let’s take a closer look by constructing a diminished 7th chord on the roots C, C♯ and D.
Symmetrical Structure = Limited Transpositions
Suppose we were to build an E♭°7. This chord is spelled E♭–G♭–B𝄫–D𝄫. However, these are the exact same notes as C°7. In fact, C°7 in first inversion (C°7/E♭) sounds identical to E♭°7. As a result, diminished 7th chords don’t have an identifiable root. How can this be? It’s similar to the fact that a chromatic scale doesn’t have an identifiable tonic note.
Another way to think about the symmetrical structure of fully diminished 7th chords is to say that they can be re-spelled enharmonically so that any chord tone appears to be the root. This is shown is the chart below.
The following piano chord chart illustrates how there are only three unique transpositions of fully diminished 7th chords because of their symmetrical structure. Even though enharmonic spelling for diminished 7th chords may vary, the chords in each column below contain the exact same four notes.
This diminished chord chart is included with today’s downloadable PDF lesson sheet. The PDF appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Now that you have learned how to form diminished 7th chords and some of their unique properties, let’s discover how you can use them in your piano playing! We’ll be in the key of C major. However, you can easily transpose this lesson material to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
The first type of usage on today’s lesson sheet is a technique that Jonny describes as a “suspended diminished” chord. As Jonny makes clear in today’s video lesson, there is not actually a type of chord called a “suspended diminished” chord. However, composers and arrangers frequently use fully diminished chords in such a way that they behave similar to “sus chords.”
For example, composers frequently create movement from a sus4 chord to a major triad to create interest in places of harmonic stagnation. So, if you have two bars of C major, you might see movement from C(sus4) to C major instead. Assuming C major is the tonic chord, we call this “prolonging the tonic.”
In the same way, jazz arrangers use C°7 to prolong a C major tonic chord. This is especially common when the melody note is the 7th or 9th. In fact, the tonic diminished chord can support the 4th, 6th, 7th, root or 9th in the melody. Familiar jazz standards that feature this suspension-like diminished chord function include “Unforgettable,” “Smile” and “Dream a Little Dream.”
Another common usage of diminished 7th chords is what we might call the “Drop-In” technique. This method typically resolves to a IIm7 from the fully diminished chord a ½ step above…the ♭III°7. In the key of C major, this would be an E♭°7 that “drops-in” to a Dm7.
Drop-In diminished chords have an “old fashioned” sound are particularly common when playing with a stride piano feel. In addition, tunes that use the turnaround progression, I→VIm7→IIm7→V7, can be reharmonized by replacing the VIm7 chord with the ♭III°7. Therefore, the modified turnaround progression would be I→♭III°7→IIm7→V7.
In today’s Quick Tip video lesson, Jonny demonstrates Drop-In diminished 7th chord usage on “Embraceable You,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Heart and Soul.”
A third technique for using diminished chords on piano is the “Lift-In” technique. This usage is essentially the opposite of the Drop-In technique. For example, instead of targeting the IIm7 from a ½ above, we can also target it from a ½ step below. Therefore, the modified turnaround progression with the Lift-In technique would be I→♯I°7→IIm7→V7.
The example below from today’s lesson sheet shows a diminished Lift-In from VII°7→I in C major. This is essentially a chord substitution for V7→I, and implies a V7(♭9)→I sound (without the root).
In today’s Quick Tip video, Jonny also demonstrates a series of Lift-In diminished chords on “Ain’t Misbehavin'” as follows: I→♯I°7→IIm7→♯II°7→IIIm7. In C major, this progression is C→C♯°7→Dm7→D♯°7→Em7.
Another beautiful way to apply diminished chords to your piano playing is to use a fully diminished shape to color your dominant chords. With this technique, the chord symbol will not actually reflect a fully diminished chord. Instead, this technique requires you to see a “chord-within-a-chord.” In other words, G7(♭9) is equivalent to G♯°7/G. Does that sound confusing? Perhaps, but the resulting sound is worth a little head-scratching. Keep in mind, we wouldn’t actually write the chord symbol as G♯°7/G, but that is exactly how our hands will apply this trick. Check out the following example:
With this knowledge, you can convert any V7 into a V7(♭9) by playing a diminished 7th chord in your right hand that is a ½ step above the root of the dominant 7th chord. In this case, the diminished 7th chord shape creates a chord alteration by introducing the ♭9.
To learn additional beautiful chord alteration techniques, check out our full-length course on Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2).
We can also use diminished chord shapes linearly to create interesting improv lines. In technique #4, we colored a V7 chord with the ♭9 by applying a fully diminished shape built on the ♭9. We can also use a fully diminished shape built on the ♯9 to add even more color! If we use both the ♭9 diminished and ♯9 diminished shapes on a V7 chord, it creates a gorgeous V7(♭9♯9♯11) sound.
If you combine all the notes of these two diminished 7th chords, you have a Dominant Diminished Scale. Another name for this scale is the Half-Whole Diminished Scale.
G Dominant Diminished Scale
Learn all kinds of ways to create tasty lines with this scale and others in our course Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3).
In today’s lesson, we explored 5 exciting ways that jazz pianists use diminished 7th chords. While these are “top shelf” techniques, it’s important that you don’t leave them “on the shelf.” Instead, be sure to get the most value out of these techniques by putting them to use in your playing.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following related resources:
- Diminished & Half Dim 7th Chord Exercises (Level 2)
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
- How to Play Stride Piano (Levels 2–3)
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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