For the "locked hands" block chord style, I've noticed that diminished chords can be used as passing chords to get from one chord to another or one melody note to the next if staying on the same chord. What approaches can be used with regards to this? Please provide examples if possible

  • As far as i know, you could use F# dim as a passing chord when progressing from Fmaj chord to G maj chord.
    – mey
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 3:02
  • Yup, I mentioned that in the question. Just wondering about other approaches :)
    – 02fentym
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 3:09
  • Would you want something like..using F# dim in place of D7 (or alternating it with D7 and D7sus4) before resolving to G? Or did you mmean another different thing?
    – mey
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 3:18
  • I meant something else. With other types of chord voicing there are many approaches to passing chords, but with locked hands it seems a little more restricted since you're frequently leaving out the bass note and you're limited to 4 unique notes (as far as I've seen).
    – 02fentym
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 3:21
  • I see. Sorry for my misunderstanding...
    – mey
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 3:22

5 Answers 5


In this case, the diminished chord is kind of special, in that it works as a passing chord to harmonize all non-chord tones. What I mean by this, and what I think is sort of implied by your question, is that in taking a scale (C major for example), if you harmonize all the notes in this scale, with locked-hands, block-chords style, for the notes C, E, G and A, you'll use an inversion of C6, in close position, where the top and bottom notes are doubled in an octave, and for the rest of the pitches (D, F, B), you'll use a diminished chord, in close position, with the top and bottom notes doubled.

So what could you use instead of a diminished chord? As Mark Levine suggests in the jazz piano book, one possible reason that the diminished chord works in this context is that it serves as a type of dominant chord, specifically, a G7b9 without the root (going again with the C major example). So in theory, you could use any combination of notes that work over G7. So for example, I might use D-F-A-B-D, sort of a d minor 6 looking chord, as the second chord, because I know that over G, that creates a G9 chord.

Listening to a top jazz pianist like Ahmad Jamal, Benny Green, or Chick Corea, I find that when and if they use block chords, they'll play many different types of passing chords in that block formation...it seems to me that they experiment and use whichever sounds they like. The note that would be most off-limits is the major seventh of the V chord (going again with the C major example, that would be F#).

  • So, for example, let's say we're in C major again. If I'm going towards a C6 chord and the melody is F going to an E, then I could use a Fm6 as a passing chord or F6 or FMaj7 or any chord combination that contains an F, but avoids F#. Or is it only if I choose to use G as a passing chord that I should avoid F#. Please clarify.
    – 02fentym
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 12:09
  • The first thing you mentioned is absolutely right. If it makes it easier, you can think of G as sort of an implied root in the passing chords, and F6 or FMaj7 OR Fm6 are all very valid over G, Fm6 having sort of the bonus of containing an Ab, which is the b9 of G. The theory is all well and good, but the proof should be in the pudding; when you play those notes, do they sound right to you? They would to me. As Misha Mengelberg once told me, "remember, in music there are no rules". You could probably make even F# work, but generally speaking, you should avoid the F# (which is the maj 7 of G).
    – pepper
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 19:08
  • I should mention that it's right that you're thinking of using triads and four-note-chords as passing chords, rather than clusters, or notes that don't obviously make up any triad. That's consistent with the style of block chords, and jazz pianists are often breaking apart complex harmonies into triads (sometimes called "upper-structure triads" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upper_structure). Sounds to me like you've got the right idea
    – pepper
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 19:19
  • 1
    Yup, I agree with the whole "as long as it sounds good" stance. Theory definitely directs that most of the time :)
    – 02fentym
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 19:27
  • 1
    Truuuuuuueeeeee! Clearly I wasn't looking at like that...thanks man. I'll accept your answer. Maybe you can clarify some of the things we spoke about in the comments for future readers :) Much appreciated!
    – 02fentym
    Commented Apr 25, 2015 at 0:20

OK. In fact this questions is not one but many, depending on the (theory knlowledge) level of the person asking.

To understand how to use a passing chord, one must first understand what is NOT a passing chord.

  • In jazz, a passing chord is something different from the iim7-V7-IM7 (in major), or the minor equivalent of iim7b5 -V7alt-ImM7 (Im6) AND THAT IS NOT a substitute chord. (further: in jazz harmony, a diminished 7chord is an incomplete, alt. dominant chord, e.g. G7b9 is G-B-D-F-Ab, and B-D-F-Ab is a Bdim7 chord, i.e., an incomplete G7b9 dominant... but since you asked about passing chords, I'm going to ignore this part of a potential answer).
  • In "classical" music (using Schenkerian analysis), a passing chord is a bunch of notes harmonizing a note that either: a) is not on a strong beat, or b) harmonically doesn't play a structural roll.

So, on to the passing dim chords. In a tonal context, the strongest tonal chords are (in order of priority):

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Diminished
  • Augmented

you can use a diminished chord as a passing chord between two "functional" chords (in jazz this means between two 2-5-1 chords or their respective substitutions) and in "classical", between two passing notes, or non-structural chords.


Jazz - Say you have in a melody the following: A-B-C, and you are in a C major key. You could harmonize that with Dm7-G7-CM6, or Dm7-Bdim7-Cm6 modulate to minor tonality or Dm7-Bdim7-CM6 (to imply a minor tonality).

Classical - For the sofisticated use of the dim7 chord, check/read p. 421 of the book Harmony and Voice Leading.

For a general treatment of classical and jazz theory (respectivley) see Felix Salzer's "Structural Hearing"(or Schenker's theory) and "The Schillinger System Of Musical Composition". The Schillinger System is not a music theory in itself, but really a methatheory, worth every minute of it!


In "locked hands" style, you can often take a pragmatic voice-leading approach to passing chords. Move what has to move, let what can stay put do so. No need to worry too much about analyzing the result.


Examples of such linear harmony are found in Chopin, many times per page. Start with his opus 10 etudes in minor keys, for instance.


It sounds to me like you are referring to the passing 6/4 chord progression of I(6)-vii(6)-I. Which is very common passing chord. (especially in four part harmony exercises.)

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