Diminution: Definition & Value

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  • 0:04 Diminution
  • 0:38 Interval Diminution
  • 1:57 Chord Diminution
  • 3:13 Rhythmic Diminution
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will teach you about the musical practice of diminution, including how composers have used it in various settings. You will learn about diminution of intervals, diminution of chords, and diminution of rhythms and melodies.


Despite its tongue-twister of a name, diminution is a pretty simple musical concept: it means to make something smaller. When you perform diminution on something, you are said to be diminishing it.

In music, we can diminish many things: intervals, chords, and even melodies. Each one of these is its own tactic, and the term 'diminution' stands for all of them. In this lesson we'll go over each of these types of diminution. While they're all different, remember that they all have something in common: every kind of diminution makes something smaller.

Interval Diminution

An interval, which is the distance between two notes, is said to have a quality (usually major or minor) that indicates exactly what the distance between the two notes is. For example, look at this image:

Diminishing intervals. Image by Greg Simon.

The distance between C and E is three steps (think C-D-E, 1-2-3), so we refer to this interval as a third.

The interval between C and E is generally called a major third and includes four half-steps (adjacent keys on the keyboard). Lowering E by a half-step yields E-flat; C and E-flat have the same number of steps on the staff between them, so it's still a third, but because there is one less half-step we call it a minor third.

Lowering the interval another half-step would usually change the notes involved to C and D, creating a second. However, it sometimes makes sense for composers to make an interval smaller than minor while keeping it on the same staff line. We could do that here by changing E-flat to E-double-flat (which is the same as D on the keyboard). Lowering an interval beyond its minor quality is called diminishing the interval, and here will result in a diminished third. The same process of diminution can be done for any interval.

Chord Diminution

Just as we can diminish intervals of two notes, we can diminish chords of three notes. As we did before, let's begin with a major chord such as C, E, and G.

Diminishing Chords
Diminishing chords. Image by Greg Simon.

The three members of any chord have their own names: the bottom note (C) is the root, the middle note (E) is the third, and the top note (G) is the fifth. A major chord consists of a major third between the root and third, and a minor third (three half-steps) between the third and fifth. If you can, play this chord on a piano or keyboard. How does it sound? You might describe the sound as happy, content, or bright.

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