Half-Diminished? Minor 7, Flat 5? Aaargh !!

Click the link below to read the script of this video.

I’ll talk today about the half diminished chord (also known as the “minor 7, flat 5”):  How it’s constructed, how it’s named, and how its provocatively beautiful sound is used to create profound emotion.

OK, so what notes are in this chord?  Well, If you begin with the note B natural and add every second white note – D natural, F natural, and A natural – you have just built a half-diminished chord.

Schematically, it looks like this:  The distance from its root to its third is three half-steps (or frets).  From its third to its fifth, there are also three half-steps (or frets).  But the distance from its fifth to its seventh is four half-steps.

It’s crucial you master the proper construction of the half-diminished, because lots of good musicians – not just students, but semi-pro performers – often confuse this chord (the half-diminished) with its cousin, the fully diminished seventh chord.

So, it might be worthwhile for you to pause the video and write down the number of black and white keys (or frets) between the notes of this chord:    3, 3, 4.

Let’s compare the half-diminished chord with its cousin – the fully-diminished 7th chord – to see how they differ and how the half-diminished got its name.  Here is the full-diminished seventh chord.  As shown here, its notes are all three half-steps apart.  By contrast, as I said, the spacing of the half-diminished is 3, 3, and 4 half-steps.

Just one half-step distinguishes these chords from each other, but that one half-step makes a world of difference in the identity, musical function, and emotional impact of each.

“Does it really matter which chord you use?”   To answer that often-asked question, listen to “Autumn Leaves,” one of the first tunes we teach our improv students.  As shown in the Bb Real Book, it meanders back and forth between the keys of A major and its relative F# minor.  Bar 5 features the important G# half-diminished chord.  It sounds like this:   [PLAY CLIP]

Do you agree this half-diminished has an amazingly poignant sound?

Here’s how that same clip would sound, if you used a diminished, instead of a half-diminished chord.  [PLAY CLIP].  Can you hear the difference?  how it just falls flat?

Here’s why:  We need the harmonic movement from F# to E# and back to F# to achieve that emotional bite.  The diminished chord already has the E#, so you don’t get the voice leading movement that creates the emotion.

‘Nuff said.

The diminished seventh chord is notated with a circle, the half-diminished is indicated by a circle with a line drawn through it.

So why is it that musicians often refer to the half-diminished as a “minor 7, flat 5 chord”?

Here is a minor 7th chord.  The spacing of its notes is 3, 4, and 3 half-steps (or frets).

Compare that spacing with our chord, the half-diminished.  You can see that only one fret separates these two chords:  To be specific, the fifth of the chord has been flatted.  That’s why we call this chord “a minor 7, flat 5 chord.”

So, whether you arrive at this chord by lowering the 5th of a minor 7 chord…..or by raising the 7th of a diminished chord…It’s the same chord…with two different names.  Here’s a schematic illustrating that point.

For a thorough introduction to all types of chords, click on the link below to watch my class “Use Chords to Make Music Come to Life!”    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G_BY4_ORM8&t=573s

And, if you really want to “upgrade your ears” quickly in a profound way, download my class “New Ears Resolution.”

Thanks for watching!


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