Diminution: Definition & Value

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.

Long Name, Short Notes

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

Diminishing intervals. Image by Greg Simon.

An interval (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 the image above. 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

Diminishing Chords
Diminishing chords. Image by Greg Simon.

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. 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.

Lowering the E to E-flat will give us a minor chord. This new chord now has a minor third between the root and third, and a major third between the third and fifth. Play these three notes on the piano now. How does it sound compared to the major chord? It's darker, isn't it? Perhaps sadder?

If we lower the fifth now from G to G-flat, we'll create a diminished chord. Look at this chord on the piano; it's a half-step smaller than the major or minor chords. When you play it, it may sound even darker than the minor chord, and perhaps may even sound compressed or anxious.

Rhythmic Diminution

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