Tutorial: Using Your Brain (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of an article about using your brain as your main musical instrument. If you missed it, you should start at Part 1 or at least Part 2. Otherwise you’re a cheater.

At the same time you’re teaching your brain about sounds played together (a.k.a. chords) there are three two-note bass-lines you should immediately memorize. That’s right, three bass-lines with two notes each. It turns out if you can hear these three lines you will recognize the bass lines of 99% of pop music and all related genres and that includes jazz.

First we have to define what I mean by bass line. As a song is playing you’ll hear a melody on top. No matter how frantic the accompaniment is, chances are very good the actual underpinning harmonic changes are very infrequent, each harmonic impression lasting anywhere from four beats to the whole verse to the whole damn song. The rest of what the band is playing is called “fills” for a very good reason. The piano is banging, strings are sawing, horns are blasting fast staccato notes but they rarely actually change their harmonic grounding.

Bass players do the same except they have the added duty of playing the root of the chord at the time the harmonic changes. When I talk about bass line I mean the note they are playing at the time of the harmonic change. The rest is filler. Funky, sexy, dirty, maybe, but filler nonetheless.

The mark of a good “timeless” melody is that when stripped completely of nothing the but the melody and that root bass note playing at the changes it still makes brother’s hip shake and pre-pubescent girls want to give it up. I’m not speaking subjectively here, just historical fact. Now maybe you, reading this, realize that you have been chosen by Jesus to teach the rest of us a new way of organizing sound that will last through the ages and ignores this quality of melody and bass line. All I’m saying is that maybe Jeses was leaving a message for some one else and got your cell by mistake.

Here is all the bass movement you’ll ever have to know (for now):

Play these low on the piano roll and get them in your head. Until you can sing these out loud at will… you have work to do. Like I said earlier, 99% of the music you listen to incorporates some combination of these three motions, pivoting off of each other.

In other words, the bass part for a song starts on C, moves to F (that’s the 4th), then G (from F -> G is the Whole Step), then to C (from G -> C is another 4th). It might try to trick you in the middle and go out of order (like from G -> F ) but 99.9% of the time that’s because it’s setting up for the next movement which is one of the ‘main three’ baselines in the next pivot.

You: But Victor, all my favorite songs go from C -> E -> F !!!

Me: You didn’t read Part 2 did you?

That E is almost always just some C chord (funky, pretty, etc.) but with a different voicing. The real harmonic change doesn’t come until the F.

But there is some magical happening with the Half Step from E -> F .

Let’s take a step back: when you doing the 4th movement (like C -> F) make the C the Blues/Funky chord and you’ll see what I mean:

Check out all the 4th and Half Step movement in the middle of the chord. As it happens Western music is all about these two movements. It’s all over the place. I swear to Allah, all the bullshit music theory, all the hallowed halls of musicology comes down to: if you can hear just this shit you can make a living in music. (That, plus it helps to say ‘Mazel Tov’ with an Eastern European accent. Remember: Hava Nagila is a lot of sad minor chords.)

To put it into practice if you’re sitting in ACID and you’ve got eight bars of a groovy riff going in ‘A’ (the default key for ACID projects). Switch keys to ‘E’ at that point, get some instrument that is playing a ‘D’ note — remember, you don’t have to know it’s a D and you shouldn’t have to rely on the hints ACID gives you as you pound on the ‘+’ to change the pitch of a clip, you should be doing this by ear until you know you have an E blues/funky chord. After a couple of bars of the E funky chord, switch back to A. That’s the E -> A (the 4th) movement. (When you use this movement to get back to your ‘main’ chord it’s called a ‘turnaround’ in snooty LA studio sessions as in: “I can solo over the turnaround but I charge extra for that.”)

The Whole Step in the bass is especially important in funk, funky blues, funky breaks, funky jazz, jazzy funk, bluesy funk and funky funk. But mainly funk. Using the Whole Step below the main chord as a turnaround is very common.

That leaves two notes unaccounted for in the picture above that look like they are not doing anything. They’re not.

The ‘filler’ note is just that. Really. If you want to add ‘strength’ to that voicing you include the note but you should train your ear to hear that harmonic change even when that note isn’t around. It just isn’t important in the same fundamental sense the others are and it’s a downright lousy note to hang a melody note on it.

The note at the top of the F chord is a C, just the like the root of the chord you’re coming from. It can give the movement some consistency but in the end, after you’ve switched to the F, it serves the same purpose as the chord before: filler. It’s the moving parts that are interesting and gets the emotional juices flowing — unless you want your music to sound ‘consistent’ or you know, ‘boring’ or you are John Lee Hooker. You aren’t, are you? Yea, didn’t think so.

Notice I’ve stayed clear of the term ‘chord progression.’ That was by design because I’m guessing you have a ton of baggage associated with that term. You move your fingers about on a fret board and you’re playing a chord progression. You read the sheet music to some god forsaken throwaway White Album cut and it has a chord progression. On top of that an epic amount of music theory is devoted to, god help me, ‘chord substitutions.’ To which I say: what a waste of energy. The fact is you can have a big bad ass chord progression with zero harmonic movement, you’re just fiddling with voicings (again, I’m assuming you read Part 2). It’s amazing how easily you can spend half a lifetime in voicings and miss the big harmonic picture.

Look at the C funky chord. If you just play the top three notes of that it’s the same as what jazzologists call an E diminished chord. And if you play an E diminished -> F it feels like you’ll playing a chord progression. Some folks will tell you that you have ‘substituted’ a C7 with an Edim. Whatever. If your bass player is any good he will hear it for what it is: a C funky chord to F and make up for all your over-education. And if you can hear the difference then you’ve proved my point. Drive safely.

In the Part 4 I show you, sigh, every chord ever. Honest.