How To Build Diminished and Augmented Chords

In today’s lesson, we are learning about diminished and augmented chords, their uses, and two different approaches to forming them on the piano.

Diminished and augmented chords are slightly different from their minor and major counterparts. You can start a song on pretty much any minor or major chord, but it is much rarer to hear a song begin on a diminished or augmented chord. Instead, these chords are two examples of what can be used as a transitional or a passing chord – a chord that can be used to tastefully transition from one prominent chord to the next. 

Diminished Chords

 The first way we can build diminished chords is by using intervals. Diminished chords can be considered symmetric chords as they are comprised of equal minor 3rd intervals. For example, C diminished, symbolized as Cdim or C°, is formed by playing the notes C – Eb – Gb, which are each a minor 3rd apart. It can also be considered a minor 3rd (C – Eb) with a diminished 5th (C – Gb) added on top.

Another way to build a diminished chord is by starting with the major chord and lowering the 3rd and 5th one half-step. If we start with the chord C major (C – E – G) and lower the 3rd by one half-step (E to Eb) and the 5th by one half-step (G to Gb), we will create the C diminished chord: C – Eb – Gb. Starting with G major (G – B – D) and lowering the 3rd and 5th, we get G – Bb – Db, which is G diminished. Likewise, starting with an E major chord (E – Ab – B) applying the same technique, we get E diminished (E – G – Bb).

The diminished chord is primarily used as a passing chord to resolve a progression to a minor chord. Starting with the chord progression of C major and D minor, practice moving between these chords and eventually adding a C diminished chord briefly as you transition between them. Notice how the Cdim chord will transition nicely between the two main chords of C and Dm.

Let’s extend this chord progression to C – Dm – Em. As we used a C diminished chord to transition between C and Dm, we can now use D# diminished (Eb – F# – A) as a passing chord between Dm and Em. This will give you the progression in full, with transitional chords in brackets: C – (C°) – Dm – (D#°) – Em. This is also a good exercise to acquire yourself with the distinctive sound of diminished chords compared to your more common major and minor sounds.

While a diminished chord will most likely resolve to a minor chord, there are some cases where it will not. One example of this is its appearance in a sequence called a cycle of 4ths, where the chords move up in 4ths (e.g., B – E – A – D – G, etc.) For example, if we want to use passing chords to move between C major (C – E – G) and A minor (A – C – E), we can use an E7 chord (E – Ab – B – D) preceding the Am and a B° chord (B – D – F) before the E7. This gives us the chord progression: C – B° – E7 – Am, which incorporates a nice little 4th movement within the chords rooted in B, E, and A. As you will hear, the B° transitions well into the E7, which is a major chord. You could also use a G# diminished chord (Ab – B – D) to transition between C and Am instead of this cycle of 4ths technique.

Sometimes diminished chords are played as a 7th, for example, Cdim7 (C – Eb – F# – A), where note A is the dominant 7th. There are only three types of diminished 7th chords: Cdim7, C#dim7 (C# – E – G – Bb), and Ddim7 (D – F – Ab – B). If you progress up to the supposed Ebdim7 (Eb – F# – A – C), you will find that it is just a first inversion of Cdim7. Likewise, Edim7 (E – G – Bb – C#) is an inversion of C#dim7 and so on.

Cdim7 is the chord you will hear after playing what should be Eb°, F#°, or A° chords. Similarly, C#dim7 is an inversion of the chords E°, G°, and Bb°, while Ddim7 is also F°, Ab°, and B.

Augmented Chords

 Augmented chords come from the whole-tone scale. Like the diminished, augmented chords can also be called symmetrical chords because they are comprised equally of major 3rds, e.g., C augmented, symbolized as C+ or Caug, which is formed from the notes C – E – G#. Another way to think of augmented chords is as a major 3rd  (C – E) with an augmented 5th (C – G#) added on top. It is sometimes called a sharp 5th chord as its 5th degree is raised a semitone from its equivalent major chord; for example, if C major is comprised of C – E – G, C augmented is comprised of C – E – G#.

There are only four augmented chords: Caug (C – E – Ab),  C#aug (C# – F – A), Daug (D – F# – A#), and Ebaug (Eb – G – B). Again, if you continue upwards to E augmented (E – G# – C), you will see that it is just a first inversion of C augmented. The same is found in F augmented (F – A – C#), which is an inversion of C# augmented and so on.

For example, try playing between the chords C (C – E – G) and Am first inversion (C – E – A). If we add a C augmented (C – E – G#) chord between the C and Am, we can hear how the G# note within the C+ chord wants to resolve upwards to A, to form Am. You can also experiment using augmented chords to transition to a major 6th using the chord progression: C – C+ – Am – C7 – F.

Another case where you might find an augmented chord is within an altered chord. An altered chord is a chord that has raised or lowered at least one of its diatonic notes by a half-step, for example, the chord C7#9#5 (C – E – A# – D# – G#). Here, the G# note indicates its augmented nature. The augmented chord works well with various alterations and extensions. Using extensions to alter your chords will always give your music more color and interest.

Lastly, here’s an example progression using a C7#9#5 as a passing chord:

Gm9 (G -D – F – Bb – D – A)

C7#9#5 (C – E – Bb – Eb – Ab)

F6/9 (F – A – C – D – G).

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