Diminished Dimensions

By Howard Rees with Ernie Rideout
Keyboard Magazine Article – April 2004

As creative improvisers, we’re thought of as being very free with our approach to music. But a lot of us end up practicing patterns an awful lot, particularly where diminished scales and harmonies are concerned. Not that this is bad; it’s a beneficial and necessary step to take in the mastery of the keyboard.

Where improvisation is concerned, though, we often end up playing what we practice, and knowing your diminished scales doesn’t necessarily lead you to a lot of creative experimentation. Many of us use the diminished scale and chord simply as a sound.

So I’d like to introduce you to a framework for practicing freedom and incorporating it into your playing, in a way that gets very interesting sonic results. The goal is to help you be free with creating voicings and lines, just by starting out with a diminished seventh chord, one of the more utilitarian chords in our bag of tricks. You then alter the sound you’re playing by borrowing from the diminished chord one half-step above or below the one you’ve started with. From there, it’s simply a question of mixing and matching.

Keep in mind that when we mention the min7b5 voicing, you can also think of it as a min6 with the root a third higher; the same goes for min7 voicings, which are maj6 chords with a root a sixth higher; this makes it easier to think of moving the voicings up and down the corresponding maj6 or min6 scale. It’s not as important to think what the new chord is before you play it; just think of reaching up or down to create cool voicings.

If you lower any note of the middle diminished chord, you get a dominant seventh chord; so you have a family of four possible dominant seventh chords to work from. If you raise any of the notes, you get a family of min7b5 chords— II chords—which are themselves related to the family of dominant seventh chords— V chords—we just mentioned. Since these chords are all related by their II-V connections, they’re available to you to use as you wish; you can think of it as a family of II chords above the middle diminished seventh chord, that are related to the family of V chords below the middle diminished chord.

Enough discussion. Jump in and play through the examples beginning below, and hear what you can do by looking at the diminished seventh chord this way. Practice these examples in all 12 keys, but remember to just experiment with simply borrowing from above and below. I hope you’ll experience a new world of colours at your fingertips.

Without further ado, here’s how it works. We’ll start with the Ddim7 from the Keyboard Chord Decoder No.1. To associate it with a dominant chord, let’s drop one of its notes a half-step—or borrow the note from the diminished seventh chord a half-step below—say the B to Bb; this gives us a Bb7chord, so we’ve put a Bbin the bass. Next, we can play the Ddim7 in root position over that Bbin the bass, and it’ll sound pretty good; but let’s use a Drop 2 voicing to make it sound better. Drop the second note from the top of the chord down an octave; this puts the Abdown onto the bass staff, making a nice shell voicing in the left hand. Cool. Now let’s apply our simple borrowing system to our Ddim7 in Drop 2: Let’s borrow an F# from the diminished seventh chord a half-step above, which gives us the first notes of the chord in this example, which if you get all analytical, could be thought of (as long as you think of enharmonic spellings) as an Abmin7b5 over a Bb. The Abmin7b5 is from the family of II chords in the “chord above” in the Keyboard Chord Decoder, and it relates to the Db7 chord from the family of V chords in the “chord below.” Remember: chords from these related families can be mixed and matched freely. So what about that E? Taking all the notes of the Drop 2 voicing into account, we now have an E7 over the Bb, and E7 is indeed from the family of V chords in the “chord below.” With the F at the end of the bar, we return to our Ddim7 chord in Drop 2 voicing, and then we resolve in the next bar to an Ebmaj9. Really, all we want you to think is this: Move the F up a half-step to a note from the “chord above,” down to a note from the “chord below,” and then back to the original diminished chord. Piece of cake, and you: get this nifty moving line that drives you to the resolution.

Example 1

Quick, let’s do it again while it’s still fresh in your mind; but let’s start with the idea of just borrowing notes first, and we’ll analyze afterwards. Begin with our good old Ddim7 from the Keyboard Chord Decoder No.1, and take one of the notes from the “chord below” to associate us with a dominant chord from the family of related dominant seventh chords and to give us a root in the bass, Bb. Put the root position Ddim7 above the bass note, then drop the second note from the top down an octave, to get a Drop 2 voicing, which reads from top to bottom: B, F, D, and Ab. We could stop here and be very happy with this voicing. But we want to be adventurous! How? Simple. Starting from that top note B, borrow from the “chord above,” which gives you a C on top, as you see in the example. Then move the C back to the original B, and then borrow from the “chord below” to get a Bb. Then resolve to the Ebmaj9. Nicely done, and rather easy, don’t you think? You basically just moved one of the notes of your Ddim7 up and down, yet you created this nice moving line. You could even play a single chord using one of your moving notes with the rest of the notes in the voicing, and forget about the motion. Let’s talk about what you’ve done. By borrowing that C on the first beat, you created a Dm7b5over Bb, from the family of II chords in the “chord above;” this works because it’s related to the G7 that is one of the four dominant chords lurking in the “chord below.” Lowering the C to the B puts you back with your friend the Ddim7 above the B~. Borrowing the B~ from the chord below yields a Bb7 over Bb, which really makes it easy to resolve to the Ebmaj9. And all this because chords from these related families can be mixed and matched freely. A Dm7b5, Dm7, and Bb7, all over a Bb? I’d say you mixed and matched freely, all right; and you sounded good doing it .

Example 2

It’s really that easy. Here are two additional ways to meddle with your Ddim7 chord, with a suggestion of how to keep the chromatic motion going even after the resolution.

Example 3

Let’s bring back the Keyboard Chord Decoder and figure out just how much we can get out of this one handy little Ddim7. In 4(a), you can see how to create each of the four related dominant seventh chords by lowering each of the notes of the Ddim7 by a half-step; the lowered note is the root of the new dominant seventh chord. In the music for 4(a), our borrowing gives us a Db7 on beat 1 of bar 1, an E7 on beat 2 (both over a Bb root), and an Abmin7b5 over an E on beat 3—the latter can be looked at as an E9, which is one of the related dominants from the family of the “chord below.”

Keyboard Chord Decoder 2 The family of related dominants in the chord below:

Example 4 (a)

In 4(b), the Keyboard Chord Decoder shows how to make each of the four related min7b5 chords from the “chord above; the raised note is the seventh of the new min7b5 chord. The music for 4(b) shows the transformation of our pal the Ddim7 to an Fmin7b5 on beat 1 of bar 1, and an Abmin7b5 over E on beat 4. In bar 3, the Dmin7 starts as a Dmin7b5 but quickly morphs through a succession of related harmonies with the chromatic movement of the inner voices, ultimately becoming a G#min7b5 over the E on beat 3, then an Fmin7b5 over E on beat 4.

Keyboard Chord Decoder 3 The family of min7b5 chords in the chord below:

Example 4 (b)

Why borrow just one note from the diminished seventh chord above or below? In 4(c), the Keyboard Chord Decoder indicates that when you move two notes up or down, you get a minor seventh chord. In the music for 4(c), our friend the Ddim7 starts life as a Bbmin7 on beat 1 of bar 1 and as an Fmin7 on beat 1 of bar 3; it resumes its dim7 form on the second half of the beat with a very keyboardistic move of a sixth in the outer voices of the right hand part.

Keyboard Chord Decoder 4 Why not move two notes at a time?

Example 4 (c)

How far can you go and still be related? Pretty far, it turns out. You can move any three notes up or down a half-step, moving practically all the way to the “chord above” or “chord below” and it all still sounds related. Very unusual, but related. When you move three notes up, you get into another family of four dominants; when you move three notes down, you get a new family of min7b5 chords that are related to those new dominants. Bizarre, but true.

Keyboard Chord Decoder 5 Move it all, find new families.

Example 4 (d)

Now for the II- V-I applications. This is where knowing your Ddim7 and its neighbors can give you some very interesting voice leading. Let’s practice by moving just one note from our original Dmin7 to get the initial new voicing over the V chord; we can keep moving once we’ve established it. In 5(a), our note borrowing gives us an Abmin7b5 over the V chord. In 5(b), we start with a Dmin7b5 over the V chord. The point is, you don’t need to think of the chord first, just start borrowing a note from the “chord above” and the chord below:

Example 5