The Lightbulb Moment: Major? Minor? Why Bother?
Being a bass player is awesome. Not only do you get to hang in the back and groove, but you get to skate by on all of that “theory” stuff that guitar players have to deal with. You know… like chords and whatnot. We only have to play one note at a time! That’s like… way easier. I wouldn’t want the pressure of having to learn all of that other stuff, it’s super hard to hear and it doesn’t really matter if I know whether the chord is major or minor; I can simply not play the 3rd. I’d rather just work on slap grooves and playing blues.
Ah, the blissful ignorance that characterized my early years of bass. Boy, was I wrong about all of that. I faked things well enough but harmony certainly wasn’t my strong suit. To put it lightly, the aural comprehension class did not help my GPA. I knew what the chords qualities meant and could arpeggiate major, minor, diminished, and augmented triads on my instrument. In fact, I actually got pretty good at using online ear training programs and apps; identifying an isolated chord played by a digital piano wasn’t too difficult. Unfortunately, I continued to struggle with chords in the real world; it was far more difficult than hearing them in a classroom.
What I did realize was that I was able to hear individual notes and decipher bass lines. I had trained my ears to figure out the fundamental notes of chords and intervals as opposed to chord qualities and voicings. I listened too much like a bass player and not enough like a musician. Something had to change.
I started playing guitar on a regular basis, and while I never officially “studied,” I developed enough ability to learn and write songs. I got over my previous six-string prejudice and discovered that playing guitar could seriously strengthen my aural skills. Playing a full chord on a guitar, such as an open G major chord, or an Em7, allowed me to hear the chord as a unit, not simply as a string of notes. Experiencing the chord as a whole provided me with much needed musical context. The notion of “major=happy” and “minor=sad” still existed in my brain, but hearing and understanding the chords became more intuitive.
Furthermore, I discovered exactly how naive I had been and, frankly, disrespectful to the great big musical God in the sky. What made me think so little of the essential building blocks that are chords? My lack of ability was obvious; any major 3rd over a minor chord began to stick out like a sore thumb. No longer did I want to be that person—the person that gets an eye roll in response to their harmonic fumble—I had to up my game. Lucky for me, I discovered the magic of “the 10th.”
For those of you who don’t know about the 10th, it’s essentially playing a chord with the root note and 3rd. The 3rd is played an octave higher, thereby making the interval of a 10th. It’s often easier to hear the third when it’s “far away” from the root, especially when the notes are played concurrently. If you’re working on a song and trying to determine whether the chord is major or minor, try playing a major 10th chord along with the recording. Then try playing a minor 10th and use your ear to decide which sounds more accurate. Sometimes, it’s easier to hear which chord is incorrect and to use the process of elimination.
Another challenge in the world of chords comes down to genre. If you’re a blues fan, your ear may enjoy the sound of a minor third over a major chord—it won’t necessarily sound wrong despite the fact that it goes against traditional theory rules—this makes things tricky. It has been widely accepted and encouraged as a characteristic of American musical culture and we, as listeners, don’t hear it as demonic sounding as it was considered in the past. The tension between a minor third in the groove or solo against the major third in the chord actually sounds interesting and provides the necessary “stank” to make the blues the blues. You can’t always get away with playing an “erroneous” minor third, but it can be close enough for rock’n’roll.
And finally, just because the bass is a monophonic instrument (meaning we usually play one note a time), that doesn’t mean that you get to neglect learning about harmony. In order to be a well rounded player, it’s essential that you do pay attention to chords and that you’re able to identify them. After all, creating walking bass lines, or even melodic lines that lead from chord to chord, are built on the harmony of the song. As you develop your ear, try fighting fire with fire. Develop competency on a polyphonic instrument, such as guitar or piano. Or, try using a 10th chord on your bass and listen closely to what the high register 3rd has to tell you. If you’re better at hearing when something sounds wrong, thereby helping you decide what is right, then go with that approach. But whatever you do, don’t give yourself permission to skate by; you won’t be doing yourself any favors and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!