Notes of Departure ...and Arrival
The Desired Dissonance of the Diminished Chord, Part I
The Desired Dissonance of the Diminished Chord, Part II
A Bridge To Be Crossed
(an in-depth look at the bridge of Cherokee)
Elements of Jazz by Greg Fishman
The Desired Dissonance of the Diminished Chord, Part I
IT WAS FASCINATION
The diminished chord has always been something of a fascination for me. I remember that even in my childhood I was attracted to this chord. It is an emotional chord. The diminished chord seems to scream out, Pay attention, because something is going to happen! Its not a placid chord. You wouldnt end a song with a diminished chord.
HEAR IT FOR YOURSELF
To hear what I mean, go to the piano and play a B dim7 chord (B-D-F-Ab) in the middle range of the piano, with the notes doubled in your left and right hands. Next, play these as a tremolo, and every four beats, move the chord up in half steps. (See example 1). What picture do you get in your mind?
When I hear this, I get the feeling that Im in a bar in the Old West, and theres going to be a gunfight between the sheriff and the outlaw. Or, the damsel in distress is tied to the railroad tracks, and the hero is rushing to free her from the approaching train.
Excitement, suspense and anticipation are some of the emotions I feel when I hear the chord as illustrated in example 1. The chord, when played this way, sounds a bit old-fashioned. However, with a new voicing and some additional notes, the chord can take on a more modern and complex character.
With this in mind, move both hands up an octave and play the B dim7 chord again with your left hand, but with your right hand, play an A# dim7 chord. (A#-C#-E-G). Put them all together and youll have the following notes in order: B-D-F-Ab-A#-C#-E-G. (See example 2).
Finally, press the sustain pedal and play these notes in a glissando from bottom to top. Notice the complex quality of the chord when played in this manner. To me, this is a very lush, sophisticated sound. This is the sound of the diminished chord used in modern jazz. If you listen to Chick Corea, Bill Evans, and the big band writing of Thad Jones and most other modern jazz players, youll start to notice that they use all eight notes to bring out the true flavor of the chord.
The intermediate jazz improviser is content to play the diminished chord (and most other chords, for that matter) only through the 7th of the chord, while the advanced jazz improviser uses all eight notes of the chord. (Technically speaking, this eight-note chord would really be notated as a B dim13 chord, but its not a common practice to print the chord symbol in this manner).
Im not suggesting that all eight notes of the diminished chord need to be played at all times. While the upper four notes of the diminished chord are evocative and sophisticated, the mature improviser can choose as many or as few of these notes as is necessary to convey the desired musical mood.
HEARING THE COLORS
I like to think of chords in terms of color. Lets say that youre a painter, and on your pallet you have only four colors with which to work. The four colors represent the root, third, fifth and seventh of the diminished chord. These are the basic colors that most beginning improvisers use. Though they can outline the chord using just the first four notes, theyll never achieve the subtle harmonic shadings of the advanced jazz professional with all eight notes at his command. In terms of color, it would be like painting a picture of blueberries with blue paint versus painting the same picture with a dark purple paint mixed with a touch of blue.
WHATS IN A NAME?
Names can be misleading. As in the example above, the term blueberry is really something of a misnomer. Arent blueberries really closer in color to purple? The name diminished seems to suggest something small; think of diminishing returns, diminished health, etc. However, a diminished chord, in reality, is a huge chord with eight notes. So, dont let that small name fool you. The diminished chord is big, not small.
These upper four notes of the diminished chord have a high harmonic value. When I look at a term like value, one of the first things I think of is money. Consequently, I started referring to these notes as money notes when describing them to my students. Although all notes have some harmonic value, all notes are not of equal value. While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into great detail about the relative harmonic values of notes, I can briefly say, for example, that the third and seventh of most chords are of a higher harmonic value than are the root and fifth when it comes to improvising.
DESIRED DISSONANCE vs UNDESIRED DISSONANCE
It should be noted that there is dissonance in the sound of the diminished chord when all eight notes are played at one time. If youre not used to this, it might sound strange or incorrect, but it is not. This particular dissonance is what I call a desired dissonance. In other words, its dissonant by intent, and not by accident. Its also what I call a stable dissonance. It works well with the basic sound of the chord. To hear an unstable dissonance, just play the B dim7 chord in your left hand and play a D# in your right hand. It sounds awful, doesnt it? When a beginning improviser sounds like hes playing wrong notes, this undesired dissonance is usually to blame.
EAR TRAINING EXERCISES
This desired dissonance might require a bit of ear training if its new to you. Try the following exercise: Play the B dim7 chord in your left hand, but omit the 7th (Ab). While sustaining the notes (B-D-F), add just the first note of the A# dim7 chord in your right hand. (See example 3).
This sound will be easier for your ear to digest when first learning these new notes. This A# is the major 7th of the B dim7 chord. Wait a minute, you might be thinking, I thought that Ab was the 7th of this chord! Youre right, but, the diminished chord has not one, but two 7ths. It has a diminished 7th (the Ab) and also a major 7th (the A#).
Next, lets move up to the ninth. Play the B dim7 chord in your left hand. This time, include all four notes (B-D-F-Ab). Now, with your right hand, play the C#. This is the ninth of the diminished chord. Notice that its a major 9th. Be sure that you can sing the note. Once again, play the B dim7 chord in your left hand and this time, sing the 9th (C#) and then play the 9th to double-check and confirm that youre singing your right note. (See example 4).
Now, on to the eleventh of the chord. Play the B dim7 chord in your left hand. With your right hand, play the E. This is the eleventh of the diminished chord. Note that its a perfect or natural eleventh. This time, for a change, sing the eleventh (E) without any accompaniment. Now, while singing the E, add the B dim7 chord with your left hand. Notice how the sounds fit together. (See example 5).
The last note of the diminished chord is the thirteenth. Play the B dim7 chord with your left hand. Now, with your right hand, play the G. This is the thirteenth of the diminished chord. Note that it is a minor 13th, often called a flatted 13th. Notice the dissonance of the major 7th interval between the Ab in the left hand and the G in the right hand. Try to get comfortable with this sound.
(See example 6).
Finally, try to sing all the notes of the chord, one at a time, from the root up to the 13th. Its important that you not only understand this chord intellectually, but that you can really hear these sounds in your head and sing them accurately.
THE DIMINISHED CHORD IN CONTEXT
Diminished chords dont exist in a song on their own. Theyre always a part of a bigger harmonic picture. Once you reach the point where you can improvise at length over a single diminished chord, you should seek out songs that incorporate this chord. Try to improvise on the song in such a way that the sound of the diminished chord is seamlessly integrated into your improvised line. Pay close attention to the connection points between the preceding and proceeding chords surrounding the diminished chord.
LEARN FROM THE JAZZ MASTERS
With all of this harmonic number crunching, its easy to forget that the main point of this article is to improve your improvising by making it more expressive and communicative through the use of these interesting notes.
Its important to listen to the jazz greats and take careful note of the ways in which they treat diminished chords. Common approaches to playing over diminished chords include the melodic approach, as demonstrated by the playing of Stan Getz and Bill Evans; and a more intervallic, patterned approach, as demonstrated by John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, and Michael Brecker.
This is not to suggest that Getz would never play with a patterned approach, or Coltrane with a melodic approach. Each player favors one approach over another, depending on the context in which the idea is played.
GREAT COMPOSERS USE OF DIMINISHED CHORDS
An excellent way to study the diminished chord is to examine the compositions of the masters of the jazz/standard form. Hear how the composers use the money notes of the diminished chords in the following examples: Cole Porters Its All Right With Me (the bridge), Antonio Carlos Jobims Wave (the second measure), George & Ira Gershwins How Long Has This Been Going On (the second measure), and Rodgers & Harts Spring Is Here (the first measure). These are just a few of the many thousands of songs that employ the diminished chord. Look for more of these examples on your own.
Try this new approach to the diminished chord in your own improvising and composing. It will add harmonic spice to your playing, raise your performance level, and expand your musical horizons.
This article is © 2003 by Greg Fishman. All rights reserved.
Saxophonist Greg Fishman holds a Masters Degree in Jazz Pedagogy from Northwestern University, and is a teacher of jazz saxophone, flute and improvisation. His writing credits include three Stan Getz transcription books, published by Hal Leonard, and liner notes for the Verve record label. He has played with a variety of jazz ensembles, among them, The Woody Herman Band, Louie Bellson, and Slide Hampton. He currently performs and records with guitarist/singer Paulinho Garcia, his partner in TWO FOR BRAZIL, and with pianist Judy Roberts. Visit Greg at: www.gregfishman.com. Email: email@example.com.