Intensive Harmony Course for Bass Players

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Following our “Crash bass course on foot“I thought it would be useful to start a backing piece on harmony for bassists. Harmony is a massive subject, so this will be one of the few. As I said at many students over the years, we bassists have to exist between the worlds of rhythm, harmony, and melody. A true understanding will help you realize that it’s all really the same thing, and the great masters bassists of the past have understood this.


Harmony is when individual things are in agreement. In ancient Greek, “harmonia” meant “accord, agreement of sounds” or the optimal union of things. These things could be a group of people, planks of wood to make a boat, or nations of the world that get along. We will 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, it was not so obvious.

There are two basic states of harmony: dissonance and consonance. Consonant sounds complement/reinforce each other, while dissonant sounds fight each other, creating an overall feeling of restlessness. Any combination of notes will fall somewhere along this spectrum, and harmony is a matter of balance, like light and shadow in a painting.

There are 12 intervals which represent all possible combinations of two notes (dyads) in the octave: younison, minor/major second, minor/major third, perfect fourth, tritone, perfect fifth, minor/major sixth and minor/major seventh.

Auditory training:It is important to train our ears to instantly identify intervals. Start by choosing three intervals (unison, major third and perfect fifth). Find a friend or an app to test yourself. Once you can identify those 95% of the time, add two more until you can identify all 12.

Harmony is really gravity-based, and the whole role of the bass is to reinforce that.

Unison can be considered the most consonant interval, while a tritone (C to F# for example)and the minor second (C to Db) might be the most dissonant. The dissonance depends on who we ask.

Both consonance and dissonance relate to real-world physics via the harmonic series, and psychosomatic 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 root – is actually an infinite number of upper (pitch) partials, which together create what we perceive as a single key. These partials are arranged in a series called the harmonic or harmonic series. Expressed in comparative wavelengths, it looks like this: 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 1/7, 1/8, etc. Expressed in pitches, it is C, C, G, C, E, G, Bb, C, etc.

So, taking into account all the partials involved when we combine two notes, we are combining many notes. The partials of each note vibrate in a way that reinforces or combats the partials of the other note. The notes whose partials are reinforced are those which are the most consonant. Venturing further down the rabbit hole: consonance is not based solely on harmonic coincidence. It is 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 feelings of your.)

The fifth has a very important role in harmony. People often confuse fourths with fifths. I’m going to go ahead and say that the only difference between these intervals is which direction you go and which note sounds like the root. The concept of “the root” is difficult to explain in words. It is a form of “harmonic gravity” which is much easier to hear.

Exercise: Play from C to F ascending and hear which note sounds louder – some might even say heavier or slightly louder. In most cases, people will say F (the top note). Now try the same with Fto ascending C. Most people will now hear the base note as dominant. Try doing the same with other fifths, then other intervals. With all intervals except the tritone (more on that later), one note (the high or the low) will consistently dominate the other, and you guessed it, again, the partials are to blame .

We could sum it all up by saying that harmony is really gravity-based, and the whole role of the bass is to reinforce that. Bass instruments add weight to whatever is happening harmonically by focusing on the roots and their progression. Walking bass, where we started a few months ago, is one form of it. Great bassists develop an incredible sense of where the gravity lies in any chord or progression, and can instantly focus there.

In the next episode, we’ll explore chord qualities, scales, modes, harmonic function, and other exercises.

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