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The Lightbulb Moment: Substitutions

Accompanying bassist - photo by Dean Zobec
Photo by Dean Zobec

For those of you who haven’t noticed, I enjoy learning about food almost as much as I enjoy exploring the bass. Lucky for me, there are plenty of parallels between the world of food and the world of music. Both rely on unique combinations of ingredients in order to make a final product. Both can be traced back to a time and place of origin. And both are celebrated alongside one another, such as Gumbo and Zydeco, BBQ and Blues, or Pierogies and Polka… who wouldn’t like these combinations? The constant evolution of recipes and musical styles are based on one thing in particular: substitutions.

It’s easy to spell it out in the world of food. For instance, take a few basic ingredients… sausage, cheese, and tomato sauce. Put them on some dough, bake it in the oven, and voila! A pizza. Or, fold those ingredients in a tortilla, turn the sauce into salsa and you’ve got yourself a taco! Most cultures use similar ingredients, but they create their own cuisines thanks to a few substitutions and additions.

Music works in a similar way… take a 12 bar blues and, instead of the five-four turn around, change the chords to a two-five progression. Suddenly, you’re stepping into jazz land. Likewise, play a blues progression with a straight, driving 8th note feel instead of a swing or shuffle and you’re magically playing rock’n’roll. These changes may seem simple, but they are the not-so-subtle nuances that help us establish and differentiate genres.

As great and innovative chefs familiarize themselves with technique, classical preparation, and ingredients, we must do the same with music. We need to practice enough technique to be able to move fluidly on our instrument and hold our own with other members of the musical community. We must expose ourselves to the classics… it’s hard to play R&B without listening to Motown and Stax, or form a metal band without listening to Metallica and Megadeath. And finally, we need to be aware of the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic possibilities that are appropriate to certain musical scenarios. Then we can apply this knowledge towards the evolution of music. For instance, we learn how to recognize the sensation caused by using a two major chord instead of a two minor; the simple substitution begins to break away from traditional diatonic harmony and can be a subtle, yet delightful way to embellish a song. These are the basic ingredients that are malleable and with the right application, help us learn, comprehend, and compose.

One of the best ways to explore a genre of music is to further your understanding of these common ingredients. In Western music, that usually means learning the major scale and being able to play in time signatures such as 4/4 or 6/8. As we settle in to certain genres, we can identify harmonic substitutions, such as the use of the flat seventh or mixolydian mode in blues or rock. These quickly become indicative of the genre and inspire the creation of a new catalogue of music.

As we dig deeper, we can recognize where to substitute within the music in order to take a more original approach to songwriting and style. Revisiting the blues progression, the turn around chords can easily be substituted to broadly reflect other genres. Below are a few examples of common associations or genres that are likely to include these changes.

  • Five to Four: Blues
  • Two to Five: Jazz
  • Flat Seven to Four: Classic Rock or Southern Rock
  • Two to Four: Folk or Rock
  • Flat Six to Flat Seven: Blues or Rock

Frankly, it’s pretty amazing when you think about how many songs have been written by adhering to the same 12-bar pattern and substituting chords for the ninth and tenth bar. Understanding where and when these changes may occur makes it easy to learn more material. If you’re learning a song and are able to recognize this pattern, you can simply make a mental note that it follows a blues progression but substitutes one or two of the chords. It’s a great way to streamline the learning process and add variety to your knowledge of form.

This awareness of substitution is also beneficial when it comes to personal compositions. It’s something that you can choose to embrace, resist, or use sparingly. If you want to write a song reminiscent of early rock’n’roll, you may actively try to compose in the vein of Chuck Berry or early Beatles. Then again, you may choose to disregard these approaches and seek out other chord changes to put a more unique stamp on the music. This is the same way a chef may choose to make the perfect hamburger and fries or break away with “deconstructed” approach to meat and potatoes. There’s no wrong way to approach composition, yet it’s advantageous to learn who set the standard, how to break away from that, and how to establish your own musical voice.

So, whether you’re writing a song, learning a bass line, or making dinner, think about how to you can substitute the basic ingredients… you may end up with something pretty tasty.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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