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The Philosophy of the Note

The Philosophy of the Note

Within this low E lies a world of expression.

As bass players, let’s slow down for a moment and think about what makes every note so special.

As bass players, we spend most of our time building lines and phrases one note at a time, each one followed by the next—or by strategically placed silence. The notes we play don’t live in a vacuum, though; they define the shifting harmony in the context of the other instruments, establish the rhythmic pulse with the drummer, and work together with other notes to create the emotional heft and physical feel of the music.

Breaking things down is often a useful thought exercise, whether it’s further subdividing the beat to better understand the groove, or analyzing how a classic walking bass part follows a chord progression. So let’s break it all the way down. Let’s consider a single note.

We don’t often think of a note on its own. Instead, we play songs and practice scales and phrases; we create bass lines and grooves and countermelodies. All of these are about how multiple notes fit together to form a musical statement. So what about a single note? What is it, really? Here are a few ways of looking at it.

A note is an indivisible sonic morsel, an audible event that occurs at a specific point in time.

A note is a molecule of music, the smallest fundamental unit that can take part in the chemical reaction that is musical creation and performance. It’s made up of such atomic elements as pitch, timbre, duration, and dynamic shape. Its precise placement in time is an essential attribute.

A note is a vibration, set off by fingers striking strings, or a pick stroke, thumb thump, or finger pluck. Multiplied by infinite dynamic and expressive variations, these different approaches to initiating vibration comprise a palette of artistic choices used to paint a musical moment. That moment becomes more meaningful in the context of the other events occuring in that particular slice of time—the vertical view—as well as what comes before and after—the horizontal view.

“Fortunately, our brains are well equipped for both processing tremendous amounts of data and using it to make countless, practically instantaneous decisions.”

The attack is just the beginning; a note also has a middle and an end. The shape of the note over time is the middle—short or long, loud or soft, perhaps pitch bend or vibrato. And where you place the end of the note can also be a crucial groove maneuver. Does the note sustain and eventually fade? Is it right up against the next note in a connected phrase? Do you stop it right when the snare drum hits on 2 and 4, creating an audible yet transient void that helps unify the bass and drum rhythms?

For each note we play, we make a range of decisions: Where to start and when to stop it, what pitch and in which register, which scale degree or chord tone of the currently happening harmony, where we’re coming from and where we’re going. Then there’s where on the instrument we attack the strings and how that affects the tone, from an articulate bridge sound, to a rounder, tubbier tone moving toward the neck.

The multitude of choices embodied in each note all affect what’s going on in the larger musical environment. Fortunately, our brains are well equipped for both processing tremendous amounts of data and using it to make countless, practically instantaneous decisions. We may not think about one note at a time; we might, for example, think about the dynamic shape of a phrase rather than each individual note. But behind the scenes, our brain is doing it all at both the macro and micro level.

That’s one reason playing music is such a good brain workout. Years of practice, knowledge, and experience are coded into our synapses, along with motor memory, a refined and sensitive ear, and an understanding of harmony.

And that’s why the most important ingredient in creating and expressing a note is you. You’re the one making those split-second choices about which pitch to play at each instant, and with what kind of attack, dynamics, and feel. Your entire life bears on these choices, from all the music that has influenced you, to how you’ve chosen to practice, to your relationship with the material you’re playing today. Even your personality or how you feel are a part of it. Are you feeling solid and confident or timid and tentative? Are you generous and supportive of others onstage and off? Do you have something to prove? There are many factors you could consider. Most of them are specific to you.

You get to decide how the music comes through you. You are the one choosing the properties of each musical molecule in the chemical compound. It is you and your interactions with your musical partners that catalyze these reactions to create something new, unique, and beautiful. And that is something worth taking note of.