For part two of our crash course in harmony for bassists, we’re talkin’ triads.
As bass players, our job is often to indicate and support what is happening rhythmically and harmonically in the music we’re playing. And to do that, it’s important for us to understand the basics of tonality and how it works. In fact, every bass player must have a strong knowledge of harmony to do their job correctly. This month, we’ll continue last month’s harmony crash course with some more ways to brush up on your ear skills, in italics below, so you can do your low-end job effectively.
The basic building block of harmony is the dyad, which gives us our basic intervals. But the basic building block of tonality is the triad, a grouping of three or more tones (root, 3rd, and 5th) that give us the four chord qualities—major, minor, diminished, and augmented—which you’re probably already familiar with.
Just as with intervals, we should train our ears to recognize chord qualities instantly. Start with two qualities (major and minor). Once you can identify those two correctly about 95 percent of the time, add another. Keep going until you can identify all four qualities consistently.
Another great exercise is to take a melody (either major or minor) and convert it to the opposite quality. Start out with something you know well, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This may take a while at first, but the goal is to keep on doing these until you can convert most stuff on the fly instantly.
“This feeling of resolution, in some ways, is the whole point.”
Each chord quality has its own distinct sound, but major and minor are related, and both feel very grounded. Because of the 5th in each, our ears can easily hear which note in the chord is strongest (the root), which gives major and minor a sense of gravity. This feeling persists even if we change the order of the notes (invert the chord).
Have a friend or an app play inversions of major or minor triads. Find the root of each chord by singing it. Work towards being able to identify these triads in root position (root in the bass), first inversion (3rd in the bass), or second inversion (5th in the bass).
Pay attention to bass lines that land on a root, 3rd, or 5th on the first beat of the bar and then practice coming up with your own examples.
Diminished and augmented triads are much more ambiguous. Without a perfect fifth (diminished has a b5 and augmented has a #5), no tone in particular sounds strongest. Thus, both chords lack gravity. In fact, to most of us, every tone sounds equal, like being lost in the woods where every direction appears the same. Both seem to want to move towards something else more stable. When this occurs, it gives a sense of release, or resolution. This feeling of resolution, in some ways, is the whole point.
The top part of a dominant seventh or V7 chord is a diminished triad. For example, a C7 consists of the notes C–E–G–Bb. If you remove the C, we’re left with an E diminished triad. This is where the moving sound, or the desire to resolve, comes from. The important takeaway is that we’re making something very stable—a major chord—and making it less stable when we add the b7, because of the diminished sound, which in turn sets up the need to resolve.
Listening for V–I: On a guitar or keyboard play any major chord, then add a b7 (transforming I to V7) and try to hear where the progression “wants” to go next. Move to the new key (a fifth down) and repeat. After twelve V–I progressions you’ll arrive back at the original key.
The Dominant Gateway: On bass, try playing a walking bass pattern over the cycle of fifths, strategically using a b7 to move to the next key. This foreshadowing is a great voice-leading skill.
That's all for our crash course in harmony. If you take your time with these exercises, you should notice not only your ears improving, but your bass playing too!
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Bass players have a significant role in controlling how harmony is perceived, so brush up on those fundamentals.
Following our “Walking Bass Crash Course,” I thought it would be useful to begin a companion piece on harmony for bassists. Harmony is a massive subject, so this will be one of a few. As I’ve told many students over the years, us bassists must exist between the worlds of rhythm, harmony, and melody. A true understanding will help you realize that these are really all the same thing, and the great master bassists of the past understood this.
Harmony is when individual things are in agreement. In ancient Greek, “harmonia” meant “agreement, concord of sounds,” or the optimal joining of things. Those things could be a group of people, planks of wood to make a ship, or nations of the world who get along. We’ll focus on tones in harmony. Take A, C, and E for example. It may seem obvious that these tones spell an A minor chord. However, long ago, before the science of harmony was well established, this was not so obvious.
There are two basic states within harmony: dissonance and consonance. Consonant sounds complement/reinforce each other, while dissonant sounds fight each other, creating an overall feeling of unrest. Any combination of notes will fall somewhere along this spectrum, and harmony is about balance, like light and shade in a painting.
There are 12 intervals that represent all the possible two-note combinations (dyads) within the octave: unison, minor/major second, minor/major third, perfect fourth, tritone, perfect fifth, minor/major sixth, and minor/major seventh.
Ear training:It’s important to train our ears to identify intervals instantly. Begin by choosing three intervals (unison, major third, and perfect fifth). Find a friend or an app to test yourself. Once you can identify these 95 percent of the time, add two more until you can identify all 12.
Harmony is really based on gravity, and the entire bass role is about reinforcing this.
Unison might be considered the most consonant interval, while a tritone (C to F# for example)and minor second (C to Db) might be the most dissonant. How dissonant depends on who we ask.
Consonance and dissonance are both related to real world physics via the overtone series, and psychosomatics via history and culture, or our exposure to certain sounds. I put more stock in the physics explanation. What we hear as a single note—the fundamental—is in fact an infinite number of upper partials (pitches), which together create what we perceive as a single tone. These partials are arranged in a series called the overtone or harmonic series. Expressed as comparative wavelengths, that looks like this: 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 1/7, 1/8, and so on. Expressed as pitches, that’s C, C, G, C, E, G, Bb, C, and so on.
Thus, taking into account all the partials involved when we combine two notes, we’re combining many notes. Each note’s partials vibrate in a manner which either reinforce or fight against the partials of the other note. The notes whose partials reinforce each other are the ones that are most consonant. Venturing further down the rabbit hole: Consonance is not based on overtone coincidence alone. It’s also based on the simplicity of the resulting ratio between two notes. Unison = 1:1, octave 1:2, fifth = 3:2, etc. (For a full explanation, see Hermann Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone.)
The fifth has a very important role in harmony. People often confuse fourths with fifths. I’ll skip ahead and say the only difference between these intervals is which direction you’re going, and which note sounds like the root. The concept of “the root” is hard to explain in words. It’s a form of “harmonic gravity” that’s much easier to hear.
Exercise: Play C to F ascending and listen for which note sounds stronger—some might even say heavier or slightly louder. In most cases people will say F (the top note). Now, try the same with Fto C ascending. Most people will now hear the bottom note as dominant. Try to do the same with other fifths, and then other intervals. With all intervals, except for the tritone (more on that later), one note (the top or bottom) will consistently dominate the other, and you guessed it, once again the partials are to blame.
We could sum all this up by saying that harmony is really based on gravity, and the entire bass role is about reinforcing this. Bass instruments add weight to whatever is happening harmonically by focusing on roots and their progression. Walking bass, where we began a couple months back, is one form of this. Great bass players develop an amazing sense of where the gravity lies in any chord, or progression, and can instantly home in on it.
In the next installment, we’ll explore chord qualities, scales, modes, harmonic function, and more exercises.
Mentorship and oral tradition are essential parts of jazz’s lasting vitality.
I recently had the pleasure of hearing Jazz Is Dead at the Newport Jazz Festival. Led by bassist Ali Shaheed Muhammed (A Tribe Called Quest) and composer/producer Adrian Younge, the band was formed to draw inspiration from such greats as Gary Bartz, Henry Franklin, Doug Carn, Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Lonnie Liston Smith, and others in creating new compositions and fresh arrangements of their work. The irony behind the name and ethos of this band, though, is that jazz is certainly not dead!
The Newport Jazz Festival, founded in 1954 by jazz philanthropist Elaine Lorillard and artistic director George Wein, is one of the world’s oldest jazz festivals. Its stages have been graced by many, from John Coltrane to the Allman Brothers. Since 2016, Philadelphia bass luminary Christian McBride has served as the festival’s artistic director.
Anybody who has recently attended Newport or any other major jazz festival, such as the North Sea or Montreal Jazz fest, would probably agree that the rumors of jazz’s untimely demise are greatly exaggerated. But the music is changing. If that sounds contradictory, it’s just because the very nature of jazz—or “creative music,” as I prefer to call it—is change. Some of this music’s greatest exponents—Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Nina Simone—were responsible for bringing about some of its most significant shifts. They not only changed the music from what it was when they arrived, but, as in the cases of Coltrane, Miles, and others, also completely changed their own sounds every few years, to the point of being unrecognizable to their earlier fans.
Much of the meat is not in what is written or said but in what is experienced. We must put the next generation in front of the real elders and actual players as much as possible.
The big change in jazz is an overall change in culture that affects the way this music is learned, enjoyed, and passed on. For the vast majority of its existence, jazz has been a community-based music that arose primarily from African Americans. It was a music central to Black culture, which informed art, writings, philosophy, fashion, clubs, dance, etc. for decades. And like many Black musical traditions, jazz persisted as an oral tradition, where the next generation learned from the last in close proximity, and then, in turn, taught the next generation in the same way. This is not to say that some Black jazz musicians did not study formally. But even in these cases, the real jazz education took place through mentorship outside of the classroom. Young musicians often got their start by listening to recordings of the masters, following them around to clubs, and finally spending years playing in their bands before getting the opportunity to lead their own, where the cycle began anew.
In the case of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, their bands were the universities. They all formed part of a thread that ran from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, Elvin Jones to Marcus Gilmore, or Jimmy Smith to Joey DeFrancesco. But that thread has been frayed as mentorship was displaced by formal education.
University education, with its regimented methodology, standardized curriculums, statistics, rules, entrance requirements, privilege, certification, and, of course, associated tuition costs, quite literally changed the face of jazz, much like the gentrification of Harlem, Philadelphia, and Chicago now pushes inhabitants out of their own communities. Young children growing up in historically Black neighborhoods in the U.S. today, for the most part, feel very little connection to jazz and may never experience it live or even ever hold a musical instrument! So, maybe more primary-to-high-school jazz education would be a good thing.
But at the higher-education level, what can be done? Formal education has its place and excels when the goal is to distribute standardized information to a large group of people at one time. In the case of creative music, where the goal is to express oneself in a unique and recognizable way that is imbued with one’s personality, the mentorship approach once typical of the jazz community is vital. Much of the meat is not in what is written or said but in what is experienced. We must put the next generation in front of the real elders and actual players as much as possible. Let the younger generation see the elders play, tell stories, interact … and maybe some of the young musicians will even get to sit in. Foster the development of real relationships and exchange.
The jazz community has sadly lost many very important players—most recently guitarist Monnette Sudler and organist Joey DeFrancesco. But these players’ legacies live on through those they mentored, like a torch being carried forward. In the post-lockdown era, the scene may not be at its most vibrant, but it is coming back and there are plenty of players who are doing some really interesting things. Jazz is not dead.
These basic concepts will set you on your way to mastering walking bass lines.
One of the greatest low-end innovations of the 20th century may be the walking bass line. Nevertheless, the act of walking is still something that mystifies more than a few bassists. So, how does it work?
A comprehensive method of walking bass doesn’t fit in just one column. One also couldn’t do it in five chapters. What I can offer is a brief introduction for those who are interested in future exploration.
Walking bass is aptly named, and much like the experience of walking home from the store, we need to consider a few things:
- Where’s the store?
- Where’s home?
- How do I get from one to the other?
Just like any journey, we need to consider the lay of the land—the physical pathways and streets available. After all, we’re probably not walking home in a vacuum and can’t just walk through buildings or across rivers! The better we understand the structure of the neighborhood, the better we will likely be at finding our way home. And, of course, there’s always more than one way to get home.
Likewise, in musical terms, we should know the structure of the song we wish to walk through:
- What’s happening melodically?
- What’s happening rhythmically?
- What’s happening harmonically?
Done well, walking bass lives within the realm of high improvisation.
The sound of moving towards or away from “home”—between the dominant and tonic—is one of the underlying principles behind voice leading and, thus, harmony. Melodically, we want to get this dynamic dominant-to-tonic pendulum motion happening, even if we’re only walking over a single chord, like A minor. Cultivating this pendulum sound in whatever we play is the key to walking in a way that doesn’t just seem like random meandering. But, of course, where we choose to place our pitches rhythmically is also paramount.
In the examples below, V represents the dominant (away) sound, which wants to return home to I (the tonic sound). Our entire macro progression might be made up of many micro progressions, called cadences (V / I, ii / V / I, iii / vi / ii / V / I, etc.).
Understanding diatonic harmony, chord functions, and chord qualities is essential to being able to negotiate “the changes” for a particular song. Functions tell us where things are coming from and where they are going.
Take a look at the Roman numerals and chord functions here. We could write a Bb blues progression like this:
I7 / IV7 / I7 / vm7 I7 /
IV7 / bVII7 / iii7 / VI7 /
iim7 / V7 IV7 / iiim7 VI7 / iim7 V7 //
Or, plainly, like this
Bb7 / Eb7 / Bb7 / Fm7 Bb7 /
Eb7 / Ab7 / Dm / G7 /
Cm7 / F7 Eb7 / Dm7 G7 / Cm7 F7 //
Because the blues is the underlying structure for so many popular songs, it’s also a great vehicle to practice walking on.
A Simple Walking Exercise: One useful walking exercise is to choose a single cadence within a progression—let’s say V / I. This function shorthand tells us where we are (in the key of Bb, V is F7), where we are going (Bb), and how many beats we have to get there (4). Find as many routes as possible going from F7 to Bb in 4 beats, landing on Bb on beat one of bar two.
Expand this exercise with these ideas:
- Choose starting and ending notes (the 3 going to the root, for example).
- Add direction—ascending or descending pitches.
- Play as a loop while trying not to repeat ideas.
- Use dominant-axis substitutions—B7, Ab7, or D7 in place of F7 (more on this in a future column).
- Walk using half-notes.
- Walk using a rhythmic shape instead of straight quarter-notes.
- Choose a different cadence.
- Walk over the whole progression.
- Change time signature.
- Change key.
I spent some time exploring examples of different cadences, with the goal of practicing these micro building blocks that make up larger progressions. My goal was to learn to walk through any cadence combination, and thus almost any progression. The idea is not to play fragments or patterns, but bass melodies that flow across the entire progression, and to also be able to do this sans notation, using our ears.
Done well, walking bass lives within the realm of high improvisation. The best players, who have mastered this art, are rarely repetitive (unless intended), don’t use patterns or riffs (unless they choose to), and don’t even need to stick to the “standard changes.” They’re completely unrestrained. They have mastered melody, harmony, and rhythm to the point where they can spontaneously create bass melodies that perfectly express the nature of the song in question. Far from being simply “walkers,” they are more like expert flyers, and with practice you can become one, too!