Harmony refers to how notes, or pitches, are combined with one another. The combining of notes happens on many different levels in music. Groups of notes are played at the same time, and notes can be played one after another. Harmony is a vast subject and often intimidates and confuses people (especially when it is poorly explained).
Let’s look at the basic elements that make up harmony…
Chords (pronounced ‘kords’) are groups of notes played together at the same time. For example, a C major chord contains the notes C, E, and G. When the notes C, E, and G are played at the same time, a C major chord is produced. There are many different types of chords and ways to play them.
Chords are named with a note name and something to identify the type of chord, or chord quality, it is. You might see chords named Fmaj7, or A7#9, or just C. In later lessons on studybass, we will go through what all of these chord qualities represent.
As far as the note side of music goes, chords, and the notes they contain (chord tones), are the primary thing bassists need to understand and study. Bassists usually don't play chords outright on the bass. Playing chords at a low pitch can sound muddy. Instead, bass players outline the chord by emphasizing individual notes of the chord. This requires a thorough understanding of chords. Never forget that everything revolves around chords.
Here's how the C major chord sounds on piano:
The C major chord played low on bass sounds muddy:
The C major chord tones outlined by the bass:
I think one of the biggest faults in music education today is students are first pointed towards scales, then chords. This is backwards. Both are important, but chords are primary. Scales complement chords. I will explain all of this in more detail in later lessons.
Arpeggio is pronounced ‘arr-ped-jo’. Many people wonder, “What is the difference between a chord and an arpeggio?” An arpeggio is the notes of a chord played one after another instead of at the same time. For instance, to play the arpeggio for a C major chord (which contains the notes C, E, and G), we would play the note C, then E, then G, one at a time.
C major arpeggio:
Playing and practicing arpeggios on bass will be a major part of learning and understanding chords. Knowing this will help you interact with the chords of a song and the chords other musicians are playing.
A chord progression is a series of different chords played one after another. Most songs revolve around a few chord progressions used repeatedly throughout. For example, a common chord progression is C – G – Am – F. (Remember, these are chords, not individual notes.) So the chords would progress C major, then G major, then A minor, and then F major.
The bassist plays a large part in defining the chord progression as it goes by in a piece of music. This is one of the bassist’s main responsibilities. And, that is why a bassist must really learn about chords and chord tones inside and out.
The C-G-Am-F chord progression:
The bass helps support the chord progression:
A scale is defined as a group of notes arranged from lowest to highest, or highest to lowest. A scale is different from an arpeggio because it is not based on only the notes of a chord. There are many different types of scales. Scales are named with their starting note, or root note, followed by the type of scale it is. You may see scale names like E major, C# minor, F major pentatonic, or D dorian.
C major scale up and down:
Even though it is important to play scales up and down to learn an instrument, that is rarely how they are used in music. Scales come from reducing the notes of a piece or part of music and reordering them from lowest to highest. For example, let’s say a bassline plays the notes: C E G E F A C A G B D B C...
Simple bassline example:
We can remove the duplicate notes and reduce that down to the notes C E G F A B and D. Then, we reorder them from lowest pitch to highest and we get C D E F G A B…the C major scale. The original bassline actually outlined three chords – C major (C,E,G), F major (F,A,C) and G major (G,B,D). When we summed all the notes together we got a scale. Chords actually produced the overall scale for this piece of music.
Scales complement chords. You will run across many books and lessons which say play this scale over this chord, and that one over that chord. I think this is dangerous to tell a student right off the bat. It’s not wrong, but first you need a firm grasp of the chord to which you apply the scale. Even if you are playing a phrase out of the notes of a scale, a good phrase will still outline the underlying chord.
A key is the scale that a piece of music revolves around. It is usually a major or minor scale. What I mean by ‘revolves around’ is all of the notes of the chords, melody and other parts come from, or center around, the notes of this scale. That doesn’t mean you can only play the notes of the key, but the notes of the key provide a kind of musical anchor for the piece of music.
In the scale example above where we reduced the notes of the bassline, we would say that the music was in the key of C Major since all the notes revolved around the notes of the C major scale.
And finally, on to melody...