What Is the Note Choice Pyramid?
The “Note Choice Pyramid” is a simple concept I made up to help students organize their understanding of all 12 notes and their application in basslines.
Basically, when creating a bassline there is a hierarchy of notes from which to choose. If your note structure is off balance, your bassline collapses.
The Importance of the Pyramid
Understanding the Note Choice Pyramid is one of the most important pieces of the bass-playing puzzle. When you “get it” you’ll be able to consistently create solid, musical basslines knowing how to apply each of the 12 notes.
If you don’t “get it,” you will still find things which work, but it will be by accident or through trial and error. It will take longer, and every new bassline will be more of a struggle than it should be. On top of that, it's likely you will waste a lot of time practicing the wrong things in the wrong order.
The Note Choice Pyramid will help organize the sound of all 12 notes in your musical mind, ears, and fingers.
It sounds awesome, right? It is!
The StudyBass Note Choice Pyramid
The Note Choice Pyramid is simple. There are 3 types of notes: Chord Tones, Scale Tones, and Chromatic Tones.
When you are choosing which note to play on a particular chord, each of the 12 notes is defined as one of the 3 types.
Let’s look at each of the three types of notes individually...
The Base of The Note Choice Pyramid:
The base of any structure is the most important. It holds everything up.
Chord Tones form the base of the Note Choice Pyramid. These will be the most frequently used notes in your bassline. They are the anchor. Many basslines contain only chord tones.
What are Chord Tones?
Chord tones are defined as the individual notes which make up a chord. For example, the C major triad is formed with the notes C, E, and G played simultaneously. So, any C, E, or G notes are classed as chord tones.
Chord tones are the foundation of every bassline. Without the chord tones properly in place, your bassline will fail. Why? Because the main purpose of a bassline’s notes is to define the harmony, or the chords, of a piece of music.
To properly use any other non-chord tones (scale and chromatic), you have to have a grasp of chord tones first. If you’ve been following the bass course on StudyBass, I’ve been stressing the importance of chord tones since the beginning.
Next on the Note Choice Pyramid:
On top of the foundation of Chord Tones, we can add Scale Tones. Scale Tones are the next most common type of note found in basslines.
Scale tones are defined as notes of the key (or scale) which are not in the chord.
Let's say a song is in the key of C Major (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B). If a chord in the song is Cmaj7, the chord tones are C, E, G, and B (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th). The scale tones are the remaining notes from the key: D, F, and A. These scale tones don’t support or define the chord, but they still “go with” it because they’re in the key.
Scale tones are complementary. They can be used for melodic embellishment or to bridge chord tones in your bassline.
The Big Bass Teaching Mistake
Many bass teachers and methods make learning much more difficult on students by emphasizing scales prior to explaining the Chord Tones concept for bassists.
It’s not technically wrong to say this scale goes with that chord, but it’s needlessly harder to apply in the beginning. The problem is so many people learned it that way and, therefore, it keeps getting re-taught that way.
Basically students are told here are 3 or 4 strong notes to play, and here are 3 or 4 other harder-to-use notes. Now figure it out!
Would you like if cooking recipes worked this way? For Andrew's Amazing Chili recipe combine some of the following: Beef, Papaya, Chili Powder, Nutmeg, Tomato Sauce, Flour, and Onions. Good luck!
This broader approach of just learning scales works for other melodic instruments—lead guitar, horns, keyboards, etc. Bass is different. At its core, the bass is a harmonic instrument. A bassline, with its critical role holding down the harmony, can't choose notes carelessly.
There is balance.
There is proportion.
There is hierarchy.
If your chord tones are misplaced or under-emphasized, your bassline will be weak.
Emphasizing scales in the beginning rather than Chord Tones will slow down your learning efforts. I wish I had the time back trying to figure out modes and scales over chords in the beginning. I was learning the wrong instrument!
Bass is a unique, misunderstood instrument. Other instruments don’t perform the same job. Unfortunately, most bass instruction methods don’t realize that and try to teach bass like all of the other instruments. Teaching bass is still a young art.
The Top of the Note Choice Pyramid:
Finally, at the top of the structure we have Chromatic Tones. Chromatic Tones are the remaining notes which fall outside of the scale.
For example, if a song is in the key of C Major (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B), the note D# is not in the key. D# is therefore defined as a Chromatic Tone. Since most scales contain 7 notes, often there will be 5 chromatic notes outside of the scale.
Chromatic tones are the weakest notes and are used sparingly and carefully in basslines. That’s why they’re at the top of the pyramid.
By weak I mean they don’t support or define the harmony. They create a lot of tension and dissonance. When used incorrectly, they will sound like a "wrong note." When used correctly, they can create a lot of forward motion and interest in your bassline.
Chromatic tones aren’t used alone. Instead, they connect between stronger notes like Chord Tones and Scale Tones. Their weak sound begs to resolve to the stronger sound of the Chord Tones and Scale Tones.
Sometimes you may hear someone say something like, “James Jamerson’s style is very chromatic.” This means he used a lot of Chromatic Tones. But, he could only do so by first having a mastery of Chord Tones and Scale Tones. You can’t simply throw chromatic notes everywhere willy-nilly. You have to know where and when to use them. You have to understand the hierarchy of the Note Choice Pyramid.
If you've ever wondered how bass players choose the notes they use, it's from knowing how to balance chord, scale, and chromatic tones. Many bassists know this intuitively or learn it over years of playing, but organizing it and studying it gets you there a lot faster.
In the rest of this lesson block, you will learn the ins and outs of the pyramid, and I'll show you how each of the three types of notes is used in basslines.
Study this lesson block carefully. Review it often until you get it. The Note Choice Pyramid is the most important block on all of StudyBass. Helping you understand this is the biggest reason why I created StudyBass!