Do you ever listen to music and wonder why and how some things sound so different. The music can take on a mood all of its own. How can it do that?
Three of the most important building blocks of music are melody, rhythm, and harmony. The melody and the rhythm we know, and we can identify quickly. But it is the harmony that creates the mood and has a major influence on the overall sound.
The Building Blocks of Harmony
At its most basic level, the building blocks of harmony are in the chords. There are plenty to choose from. But what we are going to talk about in this article is what is a half diminished chord.
The chords we are most familiar with are, of course, major and minor. We can often hear the difference. To put them in their most basic terms, the major chords are happy, and the minor chords sound a little sad. Generally speaking, that is. Before we begin our look at a half diminished chord, let’s first make sure we understand exactly what a chord is.
What is a Chord?
In many ways, a chord can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. In its most basic form, it could be just two notes. This is called a Dyad or an Interval. To give examples using a chord of C major that could be a C and an E or maybe a C and a G.
A chord made up of three notes is known as a Triad. Again in C, this could be a C, E, and a G. To extend it a little further, there is the Seventh chord. This is a very popular chord used in music and consists of four notes.
With a Triad or a seventh, the chords are created by stacking the third intervals over each other. Again using C as an example of this, the major Triad is created by using two intervals of a 3rd. The root note of C is followed by a third up, which is E, and another third up, which is G.
As a passing comment, the same applies to a Minor chord, except the Minor carries a flattened third. This would make the triad of C Minor, C, Eb, and G. So essentially; you could define a chord as being anytime you play two or more notes together.
First, there were Minor and then Diminished Chords.
A minor chord emits a kind of sadness to its sound generated by the flattened third note. In C, that is flattening the E to Eb. A diminished chord will create an even darker tone by taking the Minor and then flattening the fifth as well as the third.
So, in C again, that will make C, Eb, and Gb. The sound changes from being sad to quite ominous. But ominous hasn’t always got to be unpleasant as the word implies.
There has been some great music that used the Diminished Triad:
- God Only Knows – The Beach Boys.
- Michelle – The Beatles.
- Strawberry Fields Forever- The Beatles.
- Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel.
- Since I’ve Been Loving You – Led Zeppelin.
Someone said in the mists of time that might be too much; let’s pull back from too much ominous, just slightly. And out of the sunset rode the Half Diminished Chord.
What Is A Half Diminished Chord
It is “almost a Diminished Chord,” as you might imagine. The difference between diminished and half-diminished chords is quite small but significant. With the Diminished chord, the 3rd is flattened, and the 5th is diminished. With the Half-diminished chord, the 3rd is flattened, the 5th is diminished, plus the 7th is flattened.
It is a kind of 7th with a diminished triad but with a minor 7th above. As an example, let’s look at a C half-diminished chord. The basic triad would be C, Eb, and Gb, the basic C diminished triad. And then on top would be a Bb. This would then give you a chord of C, Eb, Gb, and Bb.
The Locrian Mode
Using a Major scale, you will find the half-diminished easily by starting on the seventh scale degree. Using C, if you start on the seventh, a B, and apply only the notes that are in the C major scale, you get the half-diminished B, D, F, and A. You may know that as the Locrian Mode.
If you use the Minor scale, the half-diminished chord can be found easily by starting on the second scale degree. In C minor, this would give you a D, F, Ab, and C.
All actions in music have their symbols, and this is no exception. As the chord is a seventh, it will have a notation symbol of “7”. To describe it as half-diminished, that part is shown as a circle with a line that runs through it like so, “ ø. “
You can also pick up a half-diminished chord by seeing a minor 7th chord but with a flattened 5th. This will be written down as C minor 7, b5. You will sometimes see the b5 enclosed in brackets looking like this, C minor 7(b5).
What Can Half Diminished Chords Do in Music?
They can act in certain ways and have harmonic functions within the music. They can act as a predominant chord. One that will lead you to a dominant. An example of this is in the Queen song “We Are The Champions.”
It has a repetitive vocal phrase leading to the chorus under which the half diminished chord acts as the predominant before the start of the chorus. A nice piece of writing.
But it isn’t just a rock plaything. Mendelssohn used it in the opening bars of the “Wedding March.” Likewise, Chopin used it often in his compositions.
Another Reason to Learn More
Understanding half-diminished chords is just one more reason to get the music theory books out. Inside you will find so much to enhance what you do musically. Here are some excellent options:
- Music Theory: From Beginner to Expert
- The Young Musician’s Guide to Songwriting
- The 30-Day Music Writing Challenge
Looking to Learn More about Music Theory?
Let our experts lend a hand. Take a look at our handy articles on What Is a Major Chord, What Is Negative Harmony, Diatonic Scales, The Minor Scales, Relative vs Parallel Minor, The Scale Degree Names Explained, A Guide To The Chromatic Scale, and A Complete Guide To Major Scales for more useful information.
You may also want to look into a new instrument. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Flute, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500, the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Student Violins, and the Best Cremona Violins you can buy in 2021.
What Is A Half Diminished Chord – Final Thoughts
Half Diminished Chords add something different when you are composing. The song from Queen I included is a good example; take the half-diminished out and imagine how it would have sounded. It offered so much to the expectation of the approaching chorus.
The great thing about these chords is that they can feel very Minor and slightly dark in emotion at times. But in the right places, as with the Queen song, they can be full of energy and very positive. Something that is definitely worth experimenting with, in my opinion.
Until next time, let your music play.