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Music Theory for Guitar - The diminished triad

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Previous page: Music Theory for Guitar - Chord Substitution Primer Next page: Music Theory for Guitar - The circle of fifths is a visualization of relations between keys

The diminished triad

If you have played the harmonized scale, you have played the diminished triad. But we have not discussed this chord so far in this series. If we build a diatonic triad on the 7th note of the major scale, we will first get a minor third, which should bring us into the minor chord family. If we are in the key of C, it will be B-D. But the next third, from D to F, is a minor third too, and not a major third as in the minor chord. We get a chord with two minor thirds. But what is even more important is that the add up to a diminished fifth. As said several times already, the fifth gives the chord stability. But it must be a perfect fifth. The diminished fifth - the tritone - is a very unstable interval. And a chord with a diminished fifth instead of a perfect fifth will be an unstable chord.

Composers of music to movies will often take advantage of the restless instability of the diminished chord when make music to scenes when the audience is holding their breath waiting for the nice guy to be trapped by the bad guy, or something similar. We will come back to this effect of the diminished chord later.

The reason for introducing the diminished triad now, is first to complete the harmonized scale. We have used the triads built on the first 6 notes, but not the 7th. Now we know what kind of chord this would be, but it is not a chord we will use very often.

We should also take another look at the dominant 7th chord. I said in the lesson on the dominant 7th that it can be viewed in two ways: As a major triad with the minor 7th added, or as an extension of the major triad with another third - this time a minor third. But there is a third way: The 7th chord may be seen as two overlapping triads: A major triad with the notes G-B-D and a diminished triad with the notes B-D-F. And as the latter - the diminished triad built on the 7th - has the important tritone, it can substitute the dominant 7th. If you are in the key of C and substitute G7 with , it loose the identity of a G chord, but retain the function of the dominant 7th.

You should remember that the simple G-triad also has significant concluding power when acting as a V chord i C-major. This power of the V-chord is lost if you substitute G7 with B°. But it retain the tritone of the G7. The G and the each has some of the power of the G7, but G7 have it all.

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