Solving The Mystery Of The Diminished 7 Chord
By Steve Boisen
Steve Boisen of The Barnkickers de-mystifies the diminished chord once and for all in this entertaining article that's light on theory and heavy on practical ways to understand and use this quirky chord.
This article is in C6 Tuning (g, c, e, a)
Click here to read in D6 (a, d, f#, b) tuning
Ain't That An Enigma
To many musicians, the diminished chord is an enigma. Sure, it's easy enough to play on the ukulele, but when sounded on it's own it yields a pungent, dissonant sound that seldom inspires one to break into song. It's rarely encountered when perusing chord charts, and when it does appear it's usually found in vintage jazz-age ditties such as "Ain't She Sweet", "Ain't Misbehavin", "Ain't We Got Fun" and other songs with the word "ain't" in the title.
Then there's the weird fact that the diminished chord repeats itself every three frets like some sort of musical Jacob's ladder, making finding the right version to use seem like a crapshoot where the odds are always three to one (and not in your favor). With all of these difficulties it's not surprising that many ukulele players choose not to use the diminished chord in their playing.
Getting To Know You
So how can the determined ukulele player come to terms with the quirky diminished chord? First, it helps to understand its role which I will now attempt to do without getting too bogged down in music theory.
If you sing or play a major scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do) and stop on the seventh note (ti) you will sense a sort of urge or "pull" to sing or play the final note. The unfinished scale is like an incomplete sentence and only when the final note (the note that your ear "expects" to hear) is sounded will this musical "sentence" be complete. This is a common ingredient in music called "tension and release" which many of us use all the time without realizing it.
The dissonance that you hear in the diminished chord is like the note "ti" in the major scale you just sang or played. (In fact, the diminished chord itself is built on that degree of the major scale.) When it's used in a chord progression the diminished chord (tension) creates a sound that naturally leads your ear to the next chord (release) while adding a little extra "spice" that can really add a nice flavor to the song. This will conclude our use of music/food metaphors.
Here's an example of a common progression utilizing the diminished chord:
In this example it is used to lead from the C major to the D minor. Try playing it without the diminished chord and you'll hear how much character this chord adds.
This chord sequence was often used in old "tin pan alley" type of songs as an intro or turnaround, which is a short chord progression that lets you know that a piece of music is about to start over. In the days of Vaudeville, it was also used as a "vamp" that accompanists would play over and over while the featured performer introduced a new song, engaged in comedic patter, tuned his ukulele or grabbed a new ventriloquists dummy from his suitcase. Those who remember the opening sequence from "The Muppet Show" may know what I am talking about. There are also some nice old songs that use the diminished chord in this fashion. "Till There Was You" and "You Took Advantage of Me" are two examples that come to mind.
Here is a common variation on this progression:
In this example the diminished chord is used in the same way, but this time it approaches the second chord from above rather than below creating a "descending" motion. This also gives the vocalist or lead instrument different notes to choose from than the previous example. A few songs that use the diminished chord in this fashion are "Moonlight Serenade" and "Embraceable You".
Try This At Home
So how can you, the ukulele player, use diminished chords outside of playing old standards like the ones I've referenced? Well, there are a number of ways, but here is an idea to get you started. You may have noticed that in the examples I gave, the diminished chord was used to connect a major chord with a minor chord that was one whole-step away (e.g. C major to D minor). Although it won't work in every setting, try inserting a diminished chord in other songs where you see this chord sequence. If it doesn't sound right at first, try experimenting with the placement and/or duration of the new chord. You may be pleased with the results, even if the diminished chord is sounded only briefly. If you are a composer it might inspire a new twist to your melody line that you may not have discovered otherwise.
It's also helpful to study the chord progressions of a variety of songs to see how other composers used diminished chords in their music. Some of the more sophisticated Motown songs contain diminished chords, and melodically savvy rock bands like The Beatles and Queen used them as well.
My own daughter surprised me recently with her composition "Apology Song" which used a diminished chord in a way that I never would have thought of. It imparted an "eerie" quality to the music which complemented her lyrics and allowed her to incorporate some unusual notes in her melody line. (It certainly made coming up with the bass solo at the end a bit of a challenge!) It is also the only song I can think of that ends on a diminished chord, creating an "unresolved" sound, much like the unfinished major scale we started with here. You can hear "Apology Song" at www.thebarnkickers.com.
Good luck in your exploration of diminished chords and don't forget to tighten those friction tuners!
Steve Boisen is one half of The Barnkickers and producer of the ukulele compilation CD Square Pegs & Round Holes, a fundraising project to support the American Asperger's Association. He is also a freelance bass player and founder of the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society.