Diminished 5th Intervals: A Music theory Guide

By Jade Bultitude
Last Update:

As a fundamental building block of music theory, intervals play a significant role in shaping melodies, harmonies, and musical progressions. Whether you’re a budding musician, a music student, or simply curious about the inner workings of music, understanding diminished 5th intervals will expand your musical vocabulary.

In this article, we’ll explore the characteristics of the Diminished 5th interval, give you examples to listen to and help you recognise it by ear.

diminished 5th example C to G flat

Diminished 5th Interval Songs

Here are some famous examples of Diminished 5th intervals in popular songs. There really are too many to choose from as any two notes that are 6 half-steps (semitones) or 3 whole-steps apart are classified as a Diminished 5th. I have selected pieces where the dim 5th contributes to a memorable part of the song so hopefully this will help with recognising this interval.

‘Purple Haze’ – Jimi Hendrix

The psychedelic rock masterpiece known as “Purple Haze” is by the legendary Jimi Hendrix. This mind-bending anthem takes you on a trippy ride with its electrifying guitar riffs and hypnotic lyrics.

The opening dissonant riff actually contains an augmented 4th follower by a diminished 5th. Both intervals are three tones apart, they are just written differently. The E – Bb is the dim 5th as B natural is in E major and this has ben flattened to B flat. (More on how to work out dim 5th intervals later in the article).

The overall effect gives the the song an edgy start before the famous minor pentatonic riff takes over.

pruple haze tritones

‘Black Sabbath’ – Black Sabbath

Prepare to immerse yourself in the depths of heavy metal as we explore the seminal composition “Black Sabbath” by the band, Black Sabbath. This song is characterized by its formidable guitar riffs and haunting vocal delivery and it stands as an anthem for rock and metal music. 

The dim 5th interval is again present at the beginning of this song. The alternating notes of C sharp and the G natural above are three tones apart. This helps to give a dark and foreboding theme to the song.

Black sabbath Black sabbath tritone

‘YYZ’ – Rush

Rush’s rock instrumental masterpiece, ‘YYZ’ will have you air-drumming and headbanging like nobody’s business, with its killer bassline, intricate guitar work, and pulse-pounding rhythm.

The alternating between F sharp and C at the beginning of the song give us an Diminished 5th.

YYz by rush, tritone

What is an Diminished 5th Interval?

Firstly, the definition of an interval is the distance between two notes. We could play the notes at the same time, a harmonic interval, or one of the other, a melodic interval. So how can we describe the distance between two notes.

harmonic and melodic intervals

Using whole steps and half-steps (tones and semitones)

We could describe an interval in terms of the number of half-steps for the lower note to the upper note. For an Diminished 5th we have to go up 6 half-steps or 3 whole-steps to create the interval.

diminished 5th examples on piano

Using scales to name intervals

One difficultly I see students having with diminished intervals is how to label the top note. If we have the diminished 5th of C – Gb, could we not write C – F sharp instead? The answer is no, but it’s important to know why.

augmented 4th vs diminished 5th

When we look at diminished 5th intervals (like will all intervals) we start with the scale of the lower note. In this case that is C major. The 5th degree of C major is G natural. Now we flatten the G natural to G flat to we have our diminished 5th.

It’s very important that you do not change the letter name of the top note.

If we use the F sharp we now have C-F# with is a 4th. As F natural is in C major, we have sharpen this to get F#. Therefore C – F# is an augmented 4th. Now C-F# and C-Gb are harmonically the same, but they are named differently.

This also means that we might have double flats in our interval as we could be lower a note that is already flat. In this case we use a double flat because changing the note letter means altering the name of the interval to a 4th. Below are some examples of diminished 5th intervals using double flats.

diminished 5th exampels with double flats

Alternatively, we might see diminished 5th intervals with natural signs on the top note. Looking at the example below, the lower note is B natural. B major has five sharps: F#, C#, G#, D# and A#. A perfect 5th would be B to F# and if we lower this we get B to F natural, our diminished 5th.

diminished 5th example with natural sign, B to F natural

Ear Training and Intervals

To develop as a musician you’ll want to be able to recognise intervals by ear. This is where ear training comes in, as the more you practice, the better your’ll get.

My recommendation for this is Tonegym as they have a comprehensive and fun program for training your ears. It’s what has gotten the best results with for my own students.

In the ‘tools’ section of their site, Tonegym even have an interval memorizer that allows you to learn every type of interval.

For an in-depth look at ear training, here’s my full review of Tonegym.

departurer opt tonegym

Examples of diminished 5th Intervals

Here is a table which shows diminished 5th across a whole octave. Remember that to name an interval ask yourself, ‘Which degree of the lower note’s scale is the higher note?’

ascending diminished 5th interal chart
descending diminished 5th intervals chart

diminished 5th Interval Qualities

We can describe the sound of intervals using a numbers of adjectives. An interval can sound ‘stable’ or ‘grounded’ like a perfect 5th, or it could sound ‘dissident’, ‘neutral’ or even ‘sinister’.

The interval of an diminished 5th, also known as a tritone, carries a highly unstable and dissonant quality that can create a sense of tension and unease. It can be described as a dissonant interval due to its significant distance and clash of pitches.

When used in melodies, the diminished 5th interval can be employed to create a sense of anticipation or to add a distinct and haunting quality. The augmented 4th interval is often utilized in various musical genres to convey a range of emotions, from suspense and uncertainty to moments of dissonant beauty.

It is worth noting that the diminished 5th interval is the same as a tritone, therefore it has the same qualities. It is also equivalent to an augmented 4th.

ToneGym- The Ultimate Ear Training App

ToneGym allows you to improve your ear with a range of games, interactive and competitions.

Or check out our complete review of ToneGym.

ToneGym, three dashboards, computer

diminished 5th Intervals On Piano

If you are a pianist then playing a diminished 5th interval couldn’t be easier. Moving up 6 half-steps (3 whole steps) or flatten the 5th note of any major or natural minor scale. Check out the example below.

diminished 5th on piano using half steps

diminished 5th Intervals on Guitar

Below are guitar shapes that with give you a diminished 5th interval. These can be moved up a down the neck to create intervals starting on different notes. In fact this is the shape used in ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix to play the opening tritone riff.

diminished 5th on guitar

What’s next….?

Photo of author
Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.