How To Use Diminished And Augmented Chords
How useful are diminished and augmented chords?
They are very, very useful.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to use diminished and augmented chords to take your playing to the next level.
Let’s get started.
What Are Diminished And Augmented Chords?
In basic piano chord theory, diminished and augmented chords are considered dissonant triads.
At its very basic, diminshed chords are said to sound “scary” while augmented chords sound “dreamy” or “unsettled”.
If you listen to those chords, you’ll hear that diminished and augmented chords feel like they want to go and resolve somewhere.
To keep it short, a diminished triad is just a stack of minor 3rds. For example, the notes C-Eb-Gb are just two minor 3rds i.e. C to Eb is a minor 3rd and Eb to Gb is a minor 3rd.
An augmented triad is a stack of major 3rds. For example, C-E-G# contains C to E as a major 3rd with E-G#, another major 2rd, stacked on top of it.
If you play each example, you’ll realize how “unsettled” they sound and feel like they want to go somewhere.
How To Use Diminished And Augmented Chords As Dominants
To go straight to the point, each note of diminished or augmented chord is just a half step away from any chord tone.
Take a C diminished triad for instance. It can resolve to any chord of any quality that includes at least one note that is a half step above or below any of its chord tones.
Some chords a C diminished triad in root position can easily resolve to include:
- 1st inversion G major triad.
- Root position Bb major triad.
- C major triad.
- B minor triad.
- Db major triad.
- 2nd inversion F minor triad.
With just a single diminished triad, you can already go into 7 different directions. What more if we can extend it?
The diminished triad even becomes more useful when you turn it into a full diminished 7th chord.
Let’s say you have a C diminished 7th chord:
One C diminished 7th chord works wonders as 4 dominant 7tth(b9) chords. A C diminished 7th chord can function as a rootless:
- B7(b9) that can resolve to E.
- D7(b9) transitioning to G.
- F7(b9) resolving to Bb.
- Ab7(b9) leading to Db.
Having at least 4 possibilities of progressions or transitions with a single diminished 7th chord provides plenty of things to work with in your music.
As far as your augmented chords go, they tend to be pretty straightforward. For instance, a C7(#5) would resolve nicely to an F or an Fmaj7 chord.
One of the best utilities for an augmented chord, however, is how it facilitates resolving to extensions.
For example, an A7(b13,b9), which is what we call an “Alt” chord, resolves nicely into a Dmaj7(9) chord:
Now let’s think of some ways how we can use these sorts of chords a bit more into soloing and harmonizing melodies.
How To Move In Between Chords Using Barry Harris’s Diminished Sixth Technique
Using the bebop major scale and diminished 7th chords, one can easily move through a scale or melodic pattern with a great deal of harmonic interest.
The reason why Barry Harris calls this technique “Diminished Sixth” is because you can move from a diminshed chord to an add6 chord and vice versa.
A C bebop major scale has C, D, E, F, G, Ab (or G#), A, and B as its set of notes.
Here are the steps to harmonize a C bebop major scale using the diminished sixth technique:
- Start with a Cadd6 chord in the 1st inversion so that the top C is your melody note:
- Move to the next note of scale, D, by playing an Fdim7 chord:
- Play the next note of the scale, E, as a Cadd6 in the 2nd inversion:
- The next note, F, can be harmonized with an G#dim7 chord:
- G would be harmonized by a 3rd inversion Cadd6 (this just looks like an Am7 chord):
- Ab lends itself easily to a Bdim7 chord.
- A is a root position Cadd6
- Harmonize B as a Ddim7 chord
- This Ddim7 chord resolves nicely back to a 1st inversion Cadd6 chord.
If you follow the steps above, you get to play two chords across their inversions in a melodic pattern like this:
How To Modulate To Different Keys With a Diminished 7th Chord
Additionally, the diminished sixth technique also provides a way to modulate from one key to another.
You simply go from a diminished 7th chord to any chord a half step lower or higher.
For example, using smooth voice leading, a Ddim7 chord along a C bebop major scale can resolve easily to an Ebadd6, Ebmaj7, Ebmin7 or an Eb7.
You can also resolve the same Ddim7 chord to any Db chord.
A single dim7 chord allows you to modulate to at least 6 different keys!
If you have four dim7 chords in a single bebop major scale, then you can easily modulate to 24 different keys given the right kind of chord voicings.
Let’s take a look at how we can use diminished and augmented chords for single-note lines this time.
How To Use Diminished And Augmented 7th Chords In Single-Note Lines
To figure out how the shapes of diminished and augmented chords can be useful for soloing or improvising lead lines, let’s take a look at this lick first:
In the lick above, you can see how one note from the G7(b13,b9) chord can lead to any chord tone of the next chord (any C major chord).
With the note G as an exception, each note of the G7(b13,b9) chord is just a half step away from a C major chord.
Let’s dissect that:
- What we have for our rootless G7 (b13,b9) chord (or arpeggio) are the notes Eb (the b13). F (the b7), Ab (the b9), B (the major 3rd).
- Eb (or D#) is just a half step away from E (the major 3rd of C major) and D (the major 2nd or 9th).F resolves nicely to E (the major 3rd of C).
- Ab can transition to G (the perfect 5th of C) or A (the 6th or 13th of C).
- B can resolve to C (the root) or Bb (the b7, that is if you intend to resolve to C7).
Given such flexibility, the concept given above provides a lot of possibilities from interesting soloing passages to multiple key changes.
Now, given all these techniques, what would be the best ways to work them out in practice?
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I hope that you enjoyed this lesson on how to apply diminished and augmented chords.
If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, or ideas for the next lesson, feel free to leave something for us below.
For the meantime, have fun practicing.