A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 6

The 6th video for Week 1 of Fundamentals of Music Theory is a 4:15 second piece called “Primary chords and their application“. Dr. Worth begins the video by recapping that we’ve found 7 triads that we can derive from the major scale. I believe that what he’s referring to are triads with root notes started on each note of the scale. So, in C-major (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) we’d have a triad with a root of C, one with a root on D, the next on E, etc.

He says that we’re going to focus on the 3 major ones, which are C, F and G. I believe that those are major because we’re working in the key of C, and in that key, [C is the 1], [F is the 4] and [G is the 5] – which is also called a I-IV-V chord progression. In a major tonality, the 1, 4, and 5 are major.

Worth explains that these chords are important in common practice classical music, jazz, pop, rock and folk music. Their use is sometimes referred to as the “Three Chord Trick”. Yes, that does sound like a derogatory name for a musician. He then walks us through each of the three triads that we’re going to look at.

  • The C-major chord, which starts on the tonic, or 1, and is called the Tonic triad
  • The F-major chord, which starts on the 4th degree and is called the Sub-dominant triad
  • The G-major chord, which starts on the 5th degree and is called the Dominant triad

Now, these are just names. The names tell us their function in the scale they’re derived from, but I personally just think of them as the I, IV and V. This also helps me figure out which finger and fret to use to find them, based on where the tonic, or 1 is. Of course, that’s because I still use this info with one of two major scale patterns that I know.

What he says next is important to bassists and applies to most Western music: When we’re harmonizing a melody its normal to have a melodic note be a member of a chord that’s backing it. We can expect to hear a strong melody note existing in its chord.

So, he explains, if the melody note is a C, then there’s a good chance that we’ll hear a C-major chord under it. For we bassists, that means that if the guitarist (or whatever the lead instrument is) plays a C, we accompany it with notes and some kind of riff that has a C in the chord, or triad.

He says we can also use an F-major chord, because it has a C in it, but I’m not fast enough on my feet to work that out. If my thought process is right, we could possibly use a major triad finger pattern and have either the 1, 3 or 5 be a C, but that’s something I’ll have to think about more before I can commit to it. Its possible that some of those positions aren’t going to be in the key of C.

He then tells us that we’re going to look at each note in the major scale and see how it can be harmonized by one of these three chords. So, we’re going to look at C-D-E-F-G-A-B and see how the I, IV and V of C can be used to accompany each.

Note in C major and scale degree Harmonizes with these chords Chords’ proper names
C major (the 1) C major chord (the 1) or F major chord (the 4) 1 = Tonic chord, 4 = Sub-dominant chord
D major (the 2) G major chord (the 5) 5 = Dominant chord
E major (the 3) C major chord (the 1) 1 = Tonic chord
F major (the 4) F major chord (the 4) 4 = Sub-dominant chord
G major (the 5) C major chord (the 1) or G major chord (the 5) 1 = Tonic chord, 5 = Dominant chord
A major (the 6) F major chord (the 4) 4 = Sub-dominant chord
B major (the 7) G major chord (the 5) 5 = Dominant chord

After looking at this for a bit, I think this is what he’s sharing with us: The 3 chords – the I, IV and V chords of C-major are C, F and G. C is the root note, or 1, F is the 4th note and G is the 5th note. The notes that make up their major triads (basic chords) are: C-E-G, F-A-C and G-B-D, respectively. I think what he’s doing is looking at these 3 sets of notes and seeing which ones have the note that we’re trying to harmonize with.

So, for the case of C major, the note C is in the C major chord (C-E-G) and the F major chord (F-A-C). There is no C in the G major chord (G-B-D). How to determine this on the fly is beyond me.

As a second example, D major, the note D is found only in the G or 5-chord (G-B-D). There is no D in the other two (C-E-G and (F-A-C). I hope that makes sense.

Finally, Worth leaves us with the thought that using only the set of white notes (natural notes, for the bassists out there) in C-major alone we found 3 different sets of triads and all sorts of internal relationships which already give us the possibility of making music.

This is interesting to me because it makes me look at these relationships as repeating patterns and music as the stringing of these patterns together in some sequence that’s pleasing to our ears or that elicits a particular mood based on the pull towards or away from the root. I often hear musicians speaking about building a lick library, and that “What Should I Practice” presentation from JazzAdvice.com speaks about building a musical vocabulary. These both seem to point to a library or language of riffs, which are essentially repeating patterns that we can amass into an arsenal and experiment with. But, in another sense, it conflicts with the idea of spontaneous improvisation that I hear about just as often. I wonder if these patterns and their possibly improvised or randomized sequencing is what leads to musicians having a signature sound that others can recognize. I’m sure technique and dynamics and equipment have a lot to do with that as well, but I think that from a theory-related side, it could be part of the mix.


One response

  1. Pingback: Coursera – Fundamentals of Music Theory Week 1 | Ugly Bass Face

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