Augmented and Diminished Chords (and what they’re good for)

No matter the instrument you’re learning, you’re likely going to be exposed to major, and minor chords early on, before moving on to learning seventh chords.

Of course, getting a solid handle on your basic three-note chords e.g. minor and major triads, along with your 7th chords (4 notes) is tremendously powerful when it comes to writing your own music, or just getting a general sense of how music works. 

But, for the majority of guitarists, we tend to leave the slightly more unusual sounding chords until we’ve progressed much further along, in particular, augmented and diminished chords. 

Granted they are a little harder to utilize and make sound musical than your simple major and minor triads. But if you take a little time to digest them into your musical vocabulary, you can use them to great effect by adding color and intrigue to your chord progressions.

What do Augmented and Diminished chords sound like?

Rather than jump straight into the nitty-gritty of chord construction and intervals, we’ll first talk a little about how diminished and augmented chords sound and feel.

After all, the sound of these chords is far more important than the technical knowledge behind how they are constructed.

The Diminished Chord

When we think of both the diminished chord and the diminished scale, there’s a particular set of verbiage you will often see crop up. Words such as dark, evil, tense, unsettling, dissonant, and even spooky.

In fact, the diminished chord contains within it a ‘tritone’ which without going into too much theory right now is basically a set of notes that sounds, well, evil. So evil, in fact, that centuries ago it was nicknamed ‘the devil’s interval’ and was avoided by classical music composers due to its association with the devil.

But if it sounds so dark and offensive, why should I learn it? I want to write catchy music!

Put simply, context.

Even in the most catchy and accessible of chord progressions, there is scope to make use of the diminished chord. It can offer that all-important source of tension before resolving which can really serve to enhance the emotional journey of your music.

For example, if you have a chord progression with a whole step between two major chords, using a diminished chord as a passing chord can be really effective.

The Augmented Chord

While not quite having the same association with the devil as the tritone/diminished chord, the augmented chord is still one that sounds unusual compared to your major and minor triads.

Terms we might use to describe its sound are mysterious, uneasy, and dreamlike as it has a spacey and unresolved quality to it.

This is all thanks to that sharpened fifth note (5th scale degree of the major scale) we’ll explain properly soon, but that one note throws the chord outside of our regular major/minor scale base which is why it sounds so unusual yet at the same time so beautifully melodic.

Careful use of an augmented chord at a key point in your chord progression can work wonders for elevating the complexity and intrigue of the music you’re writing.

It’s heavily favored by jazz and progressive musicians for this very reason.

A quick primer on intervals

To first understand how we build these chords, we first need to talk about intervals.

If you pick a note, any note, and then play another note. That distance between the two notes gets a name based on how far it is away from the first note we played. That is what we call the ‘interval’ between two notes.

As an example, take the C major scale, of which the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

Play the tonic note C, and then play the 3rd note of that scale (the 3rd scale degree), which is E.

That E is 4 notes higher than C ( C#, D, D#, E), the name we give to that 4 note interval is a ‘major third’. 

Another example is to take a C, then play the next C which is 12 notes higher on the guitar. The name of that interval is an octave, which means there are 12 notes between the first and second note and the C we are now playing, while the same note letter name is double the frequency of the previous note.

Here are all the intervals listed for the 12 possible combinations we have in standard western diatonic music, we’ll keep using C for this example, but you can apply it to any key you wish.

Note NameNumber of notes apart from CInterval nameOther common names 
C0Perfect Unison 
C#1Minor SecondSemitone, half-step
D2Major SecondWhole step, whole-tone, tone
D#3Minor Shird 
E4Major Third 
F5Perfect Fourth 
F#6Augmented FourthDiminished Fifth, Tritone
G7Perfect Fifth 
G#8Minor Sixth 
A9Major Sixth 
A#10Minor Seventh 
B11Major Seventh 
C12Octave 

Study this chart well!

Remembering your intervals is pretty important to mastering chord construction and understanding the types of chords you are playing in terms of their relationship with the other notes forming the chord.

This will come in particularly handy when you begin working on extended chords e.g. 13th, 9th, and 11th chords.

Luckily for us, we don’t need to use every single interval on the chart to make a diminished or augmented chord. The ones we need to pay attention to are the 3rd intervals e.g. minor third, major third, and the diminished/augmented fifth, which is a third above the major or minor third interval.

As these chords are essentially constructed by stacking intervals of a third together they are referred to as tertian chords. e.g. augmented chords consist of stacked major thirds, while diminished chords consist of stacked minor thirds.

With those intervals and root notes in mind let’s go and make these chords!

Diminished and Augmented chord construction

The Diminished Triad

We’ll stick with the key of C for now as it’s nice and easy to work with, as it contains no accidentals e.g. sharp or flat notes.

Here is the interval formula to make a 3-note diminished triad:

  1. Root N0te (C)
  2. Minor third (Eb)
  3. Diminished fifth (Gb)

Why do we use E-flat instead of D-sharp? Or G-flat instead of F-sharp?
Technically it’s exactly the same thing, but the act of diminishing something means to ‘reduce’, so we are taking that E and G and reducing them to make that diminished sound. Another easy way to think of this is a minor chord with that perfect fifth being reduced or ‘diminished’ by 1 semitone to make a diminished fifth.

The Augmented Triad

In a similar kind of fashion, to make an augmented triad we just need to take a major chord, which as you may already know uses a root note, a major third, and a perfect fifth interval.

And we’re going to sharpen that fifth note, or ‘augment’ it by 1 semitone.

So taking C again here is the formula to make a 3-note C augmented triad:

  1. Root note (C)
  2. Major third (E)
  3. Augmented fifth (G#)

Much in the same way you might think of a diminished chord as a pair of minor thirds stacked on top of each other, this is the same thing, but it’s two major thirds stacked on top of each other.

Another name we have for this is symmetrical chords’ as both the second and third notes of the chord use the same interval.

How to play augmented and diminished chords on guitar

Here’s where things start to get fun, because of the way the guitar’s fretboard is laid out, sometimes playing these chords in a linear fashion is surprisingly challenging. Often requiring some uncomfortable stretches. 

So what we often do is move the notes around a bit to create all kinds of cool chord ‘voicings’. This just means a different way of gripping the chord e.g. we use the same notes, just found in different areas of the fretboard, and sometimes using the notes in different order e.g. chord inversions.

Let’s go over a few examples of how you can voice the C diminished and C augmented chords to help you expand your guitar vocabulary. Of course, these chord voicings can be easily moved up or down the neck to create chords in different keys too.

5 examples of a C diminished triad on guitar:

5 examples of a C diminished triad on guitar:

5 examples of a C augmented triad on guitar:

5 examples of a C augmented triad on guitar:

These are just some voicings to get you started, I highly encourage you to find your own and explore them in keys outside of C!

Using augmented and diminished chords in chord progressions

Now we know how to make these chords and find them on a guitar. We need to think about how we actually go about using them in music.

Because of the slightly unusual emotions, they present it’s not always the easiest thing to integrate these chords into your progressions without it sounding forced.

Because of this diminished chords are often used as “passing chords“. This means they are chords that serve to connect two diatonic chords e.g. chords that are built only from the notes of a particular key. They can be used as a replacement for a dominant chord (5th chord found in a scale) in a chord progression.

Augmented chords work much the same way. Both chord types serve to add interest to a chord progression, but the key is not to hold them for too long.

Below are a few examples of how you can use both Augmented and Diminished chords in your progressions smoothly.

We’ll be just using roman numerals to cover these progressions so they can work in any key, if you aren’t familiar with these yet, it’s a little too much to cover in this article. So here is a handy guide that can get you started with them.

Diminished Chord progressions

Marah Carey: All I want for Christmas is you.

Chorus Progression: I, V, vi, ii°, I, V, ii°, V, I

This progression goes on quite a bit longer than we’ve detailed here. But if you want a perfect example of how the diminished chord can be used multiple times in possibly one of the catchiest and most singable tunes ever, this is it.

On the set of chords here we see can that it’s the fourth chord used and sits right before that return to that all-important I chord. By using it at the end of a 4 chord progression before heading back to the root it gives us that sense of longing for resolution, which will make the return to the I chord that much more satisfying and fulfilling.

Then its second use here is sandwiched between two V chords. While the V is a strong chord that’s great to sing over, it can sound a little stale when used for prolonged periods of time. So the diminished ii° chord helps to break these up and create a little more intrigue while still allowing heavy use of those major chords.

ABBA: SOS

Chorus progression: I, V, ii°, IV, I

Another good example of how the diminished chord, when sandwiched between two more resolute chords just offers that natural path and doesn’t come off sound jarring at all.

The role of the diminished chord here is to sit in between the primary chords of the scale (primary meaning the I, IV, and V chords as they are the major chords in that key).

This allows you to use those powerful major chords consistently without it sounding boring as it offers that tension which is then released as you pass back onto the primary chord.

Augmented Chord Progressions

The Beatles: Oh Darling

Verse progression (partial): V+, I, V, vi,

In roman numerals, we use the V+ sign to indicate that augmented fifth chord. But here that opening augmented chord just offers that twinge of tension and apprehension before beautifully sinking into that I chord.

Works equally as effective when used at the end of a progression to lead the turnaround too!

Randy Newman: You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Verse progression (partial): I, V+, I, vi, IV

If you’ve ever watched the popular movie Toy Story you’ll no doubt already be familiar with this song. It comes right out of the gate from the I chords into the augmented 5 then straight back into the 1 to great effect.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has given you some good insight into the world of these two slightly underappreciated chords and how you can go about both constructing them and using them in your own chord progressions.

The real key here is to be tasteful and intentional with them, in good hands they can enhance a piece of music a great deal.

Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.