In the last article we discussed the basics of major and minor triads, remember triads are simple three note chords that can be stacked in thirds. A major triad is made up of the the 1st, 3rd, and 5th note of the scale, while a minor triad happens to the be the 1st, flattened 3rd, and the 5th. Which means the C major triad is C-E-G and the C minor triad is C-Eb-G. The next chords we are going to take a look at are the augmented and diminished triads.
When you first hear a diminished triad played you will immediately notice how dramatic and even eerie it can sound. A diminished triad is simply a minor triad with a flat 5th. It is made up of the root note, a flattened 3rd, and a lowered or diminished 5th, thus a C dim chord will consist of C-Eb-Gb. There are a few different ways to notate this triad either as C diminished, C dim, or C. Below is one of the many examples of where to find this diminished triad on your guitar.
As mentioned in the last article, certain triad shapes are perfect for learning multiple chords on the guitar. Let’s take the C dim shape above and move it two frets up, the notes will now be D-F-Ab, which is a D diminished chord. As long as we stick to this same shape up and down the fretboard we will have a variety of diminished chords.
The diminished triad is most often used as an approach chord, waiting to be resolved by moving the 3rd and 5th one half step up. Play the notes C-Eb-Gb and then move to C-E-G and you will see how nice this resolution sounds, it has an unstable quality just waiting to be wrapped up nicely. Before we get into any specific examples let’s take a look at augmented triads.
An augmented chord is a major triad with a raised 5th. So a normal C major C-E-G becomes the augmented or raised C-E-G#. This triad can be notated as C augmented, C aug, or C+, like diminished triads they also have an unstable sound and are often looking to be resolved to another chord. A great example of a C+ triad shape is:
Just like the diminished triad above we can move this shape up and down the guitar, always getting an augmented triad. In fact, if we use the diminished triad shape we learned from above we can move that up to the regular C major triad and then raise the fifth up to the augmented C. I personally like how it sounds to play the triad or chord progression C aug-C maj-C-dim-C maj.
Because these chords have a bit of dissonance they are often used for a very short time, perhaps in passing for one beat or maybe one bar. They work best as a leading tone into another chord, quite often the root or tonic. These augmented and diminished chords create an anticipation and transition between normal major and minor triads. They are to be used sparingly in most cases, a little goes a long way! Sometimes songwriters also use these augmented and diminished chords to modulate between different keys in a song.
Just like our major and minor triads our diminished and augmented chords start to really open up when we stack more notes onto them. For example, we can add a major 7th to the C aug chord, giving us the notes C-E-G#-B. Or we can get a little more complicated and create a C augmented 9th chord. The formula for a regular C9 chord is 1st, 3rd, 5th, flattened 7th, and a 9th, by raising the 5th we will create the Caug9 C-E-G#-A#-D.
When we build upon diminished triads we also have what is known as a half-diminished chord. The formula for a C half diminished 7th is C-Eb-Gb-Bb and a regular diminished 7th is C-Eb-Gb-A. As you notice the half diminished is a half-step down while the regular diminished is a whole step. These two chords have very different sounds and notations, however they are both built off the diminished triad we learned above. There are almost endless ways to build on your triads. Once you have the basics down of major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads, we can use these notes and chord shapes to create new and complicated sounds in our musical compositions.
One great example of a song that includes both augmented and diminished triads happens to be Stevie Wonders song “For Once In My Life.” The chord progression of the verse in this song is C-C+-C6-C#dim7. He first starts with the C chord, jumps to the augmented C, moves up to the C6 and then to the diminished 7th of the C#. These chords are great at building a little bit of musical tension and sounding like a perfect mix of pop rock and jazz. Other examples of songs using C major and C augmented chords are John Lennon’s “Starting Over” and “Baby Hold Onto Me” by Eddie Money
To find some examples of diminished chords one needs to look no further than Christmas tunes. Jingle Bell Rock, Let It Snow, Little Saint Nick, Winter Wonderland, and more all have diminished 7th chords in them. In fact, so many tunes from the 20’s and 30’s have these diminished 7ths that it is known as the “diminished cliché.” The best way to use these dim 7 chords are to jump a half step up from the chord you start at. Instead of playing Cmaj and then Dmin, try Cmaj to C#dim7 and then to Dmin. The latter sounds far better and will increase your musical palette.
You will find the best songwriters use augmented and diminished triads to “pepper” their music with more sonic layers. The Beatles often use these triads in their music. It doesn’t take much to really change or add to the sound of a simple chord progression. Their song “Oh Darling” starts out on an Eaug7 chord, that is made up of E-G#-C-D. A regular E chord is E-G#-B, just think how different that song would be if they played a regular Emaj instead of the Eaug7. That augmented 7th is only played for one bar but really creates a bit of initial musical tension leading into that song.
There are plenty more examples out there of augmented and diminished triads. By practicing the specific triad shapes you will become more familiar with how they sound, eventually you will be able to listen to your favorite music and pick them out. Remember the purpose of augmented and diminished triads is to create a dissonance and instability that must be resolved into a better sounding chord!
This article concludes our journey into the fascinating world of triads and harmony. Actually, learning triads is just the beginning: there are a lot of interesting things you can do, such as adding another tone and creating seventh chords, and so forth. John March has created a full lessons series about this topic in his Chord Alchemy - developing a modern chord vocabulary
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