Don’t diminish the use of diminished & augmented chords
Songwriting coach James Linderman advises on the best use of these lesser-known chords, and how they can ‘augment’ your song
Contemporary songwriters sometimes come to hear about diminished and augmented chords… and some even know one or two, usually because at one time or another they had to play a ragtime styled piece or a holiday classic like Frosty The Snowman. And there it was, a G#dim in bar six of the eight-bar bridge.
In this article, we are going to have a look at the role diminished and augmented chords might play in writing a contemporary song and how they can help the right section of your chord progression really make a bold and evocative statement.
To get started, it helps to have a bit of an understanding of what diminished and augmented chords even are, and also how they fit into the understanding of chord chemistry that you might already possess. There are four basic chord qualities, or chord personalities if you will!
- Major – happy
- Minor – sad
- Diminished – anxious
- Augmented – the sound a hangover might make (if a hangover was a chord!)
The two-chord qualities from the above list, that you are probably most familiar with, and use the most are the major and minor chords. They are a songwriters bread and butter and they help the lyrics and melody create a mood that is either happy or sad or a nuanced blend of those two broader feelings. A great use for a diminished chord in your progression would be something like this from a song in the key of D.
G / A / A#DIM / BM
This example comes from the Orleans song Dance With Me and interestingly enough, just like in Frosty The Snowman, this diminished chord can be found in the 6th bar of the eight-bar bridge section. This four-bar section provides a lift that can be attributed, firstly, to starting out on the G chord, that then lifts to the A chord which is dominant in the key of D and creates a lot of initial tension. That tension, however, is then made greater by the A#dim chord lifting chromatically from the A bass note to the A# bass note before resolving to the Bm with a B bass note.
Play through this set of four chords repeatedly and listen for the rise in tension and the release of that tension on the Bm and then project how you might use this chord change in one of your own songs, maybe by taking a song that is already written and inserting an A#dim between an A chord and a Bm. In the Orleans song, this chord section is played under a melody that rises with the increase in harmonic tension and then falls with the Bm resolution and the lyrics are about being taken “where you want to go” which is an uplifting sentiment. This has all of the elements of the song; lyric, melody and chord progression all working together for a single unified effect on the listener. That is the goal!
Augmented chords can be great in what is called a ‘vamp’. There are some confusing, and sometimes even conflicting, explanations for what a vamp might actually encompass but for our purposes here we are going to use the most widely agreed on definition and that is (paraphrased) that one or two chords (or a small number of chords) move back and forth in a short time frame. A two-chord vamp is considered the convention, so it is what we will look at here.
C / CAUG / C / CAUG
This vamp gets repeated for a majority of a songs section, such as six bars of an eight-bar verse frame. This example is taken from the Danny O’Keefe song The Road that was more famously recorded by Jackson Browne. The song is about how life on the road for a musician is an unreal world and this “hangover” sounding vamp helps create a backdrop that is supported by the melody and lyric content. Try and extend and contract the duration of each of the chords changing them slower and faster and see how easily they can be extracted from this source song and made adaptable to another songwriting opportunity. Of course, Danny O’Keefe did not invent this chord change and so, just like you, he has come across it and found a new use for it back when he wrote The Road.
He follows this six bars of vamp with two bars of a dropping bass movement that walks through chords from the key (key of C) and it is interesting to note that O’Keefe alters his chord system substantially for the refrain bars at the end of the verse. So, just as he moves towards the title of the song he adds this new chord system and larger chord movement to get the listener’s attention pulling them out of the kind of hypnotic tunnel vision effect that a two-chord vamp has created.