Beginner Bass Base: Ear Training For Bassists, Part 1

Training your ear to recognize how the notes in any interval relate to each other is simply coaxing your mind into analyzing what you’re already hearing

Beginner Bass Base: Ear Training For Bassists, Part 1

Training your ear to recognize how the notes in any interval relate to each other is simply coaxing your mind into analyzing what you’re already hearing

A single note sounds. Your ears pick up the sound as it lingers in the air. Just one note, nothing else. The note is just a sound until you relate it to another note; then, the real work of a musician’s ear begins. The two notes, sounding either together or in sequence, create an interval, which in turn spells out the beginning fragment of a chord or a scale — and, voilà, you have music. This is what ear-training is all about: hearing how notes relate to one another, an essential skill for any bass player.

Training your ear to recognize how the notes in any interval relate to each other is simply coaxing your mind into analyzing what you’re already hearing. Since bass players deal with the physical aspects of playing best…grab your bass!

In the previous installment of Beginner Bass Base (Issue 11) I introduced you to the intervals as they appear on your fretboard. Just to check you’re all clear on the terminology, here’s a little self-administered test:

Major scale:

(a) High ranking military officer

(b) Chinese card game

(c) Combination of seven different notes arranged by whole- and half-steps

Minor interval:

(a) A young interval that has to be accompanied by an adult interval

(b) A “nor” interval, and it’s all mine

(c) A major interval lowered by a half-step

Half-steps and whole-steps:

(a) Dancing course for kids and adults

(b) Recovery program for musicians who stopped practicing

(c) Distances between two notes

Relative pitch:

(a) A baseball game with one of your uncles on the mound

(b) A cousin trying to convince you to invest money into one of his hare-brained schemes

(c) The relationship of two notes to each other, forming an interval

Answers: It’s (c) in all cases…pretty tricky, huh?

And now, a step-by-step guide to some exercises to turn your ears into the powerhouse musical tool they were always meant to be.

Play a note on your bass — C, for example, on the 5th fret of your G string. Sing the note. Keep singing that same note and play a C an octave lower, on the 3rd fret of your A string. Don’t change the note you’re singing while you’re playing the lower note. Next, play a C an octave above the original C, on the 17th fret of your G string. Keep singing your original C as you play the higher C. This will train your ear to recognize the functional harmony of a note, so it doesn’t get confused by whether the note is the same, higher or lower. In a C chord, the C always functions as the root, no matter what octave it’s in. Do this exercise with all 12 different pitches. If you need to review where the different notes are located, please refer to Issue 2 (which you can also find on my website, Do this exercise until you can sing a steady note while playing it in different octaves.

Next, pick a note with which to start a major scale. Make it a note that sits comfortably toward the lower end of your vocal range, so that you can sing a one-octave major scale without straining too much. Check out Ex. 1 for the pattern of a one-octave major scale. (In this example, the diamond shape is the root and the solid dots are the other scale tones.) Play this major scale and sing along with it until you’re used to the sound and the range. Get comfortable singing along with the scale. As you’re singing and playing the different intervals of the major scale, keep the fingering consistent, so that your hand and your ears form a connection and can relate to the notes with ease. You can find the patterns for the major scale intervals in Ex. 2 through Ex. 8. In these examples, the diamond shape is the root, the solid dot is the note forming an interval with the root, and the broken shapes are the other notes of the scale.

Now, play the root of the major scale and then play the 2nd note (Ex. 2). For example, if your major scale begins on C, play C and then D. Play them in this order: Play C, then D, then back to C. Do this again, but this time sing along with the notes, saying “one, two, one.” Finally, while playing only the C, again sing the same “one” (for the C), “two” (for the D), and “one” (back to the C). Using the numbers as you’re singing the notes helps you relate the harmonic function of the notes to each other; the “one” is the root, the “two” is the 2nd, and then it’s back to the root with “one.”

Next up, play the root and the 3rd of your major scale (Ex. 3). In the key of C, this would be C and E. Same deal here: Play C, then E, then back to C. Rinse and repeat, this time singing along: “one, three, one.” Last, play only the C and sing “one” for C, sing “three” for E, and again sing “one” for the final C.

If you’ve surmised that the next sequence involves playing and singing the root and the 4th of the major scale, you’re absolutely correct (Ex. 4). Play the root, the 4th, and then back to the root. In this case it would be C, F, and back to C again. Next, sing along with that same sequence, singing “one, four, one,” and then sing it one more time the same way, but this time playing only the C.

Moving on to the root and the 5th (Ex. 5), play C, the root, followed by G, the 5th, and then C again. Repeat this, but now sing along saying “one, five, one.” Finally, sing the sequence one more time with the same words, but this time play only the root, the C.

Your ears should be really perking up by now — which is a good thing, because your next interval, the 6th, is usually a bit of a challenge to identify (Ex. 6). Play the root (the C), then the 6th (the A), and return to the root. Then repeat the phrase, this time singing along: “one, six, one.” After that, play only the root (C) while singing the same “one, six, one.”

Eventually you reach the 7th, and now you’re ready to lock it in with the same exercise (Ex. 7): Play the root (C), then play the 7th (B), and return to the root (C). Play it again and sing along with “one” (for the root, C), “seven” (for the B), and “one” (back down to the root, the C). Then just play the root (C) and sing the same sequence, using “one, seven, one” for the respective notes.

Finally, the 8th interval is the octave, which is the same note as the root, but an octave higher (Ex. 8). Play the root, then play the upper-octave root (which are both C’s), and then go back down to the low root again. Repeat this phrase, this time singing along with “root, root, root” (sounds like you’re rooting for your favorite high school team), and then repeat the singing part, but this time play only the low root.

When you have a good handle (or “eardle,” if you will) on these exercises, you can further your ear-proficiency by playing only the root of a major scale, and then mentally singing up the scale without playing or singing it out loud, and then singing the interval of your choice, this time aloud. For example, play any note, then mentally sing the major scale in your mind with that note as your root until you reach the note you target, and then sing that note out loud. Check to see if you got it right by playing the note on your bass. If you choose to play C and you want to find the 6th (that would be an A), mentally think of the sound of the major scale starting at C. The scale would consist of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C. Stop at the 6th note (A) and sing it aloud. Then play it on your bass to see if you got it right (Ex. 6). It may take a little practice, but in a short while you will be able to sing all of the intervals in a major scale with sure-fire precision. In fact, you can practice by singing the phone numbers of friends…fun and games for the entire family. (Just sing the octave root for “0” and the 2nd for “9.”)

Spend some time with the major scale. It forms the basis for all of the intervals, and having a solid grasp of it is essential for identifying intervals within and outside the major scale — but more about that in the next installment of Beginner Bass Base. For now, go get yourself some hot ears. –BM

Patrick Pfeiffer is a professional bassist, bass educator, clinician, composer and author, having published several classic bass books, among them Bass Guitar for Dummies, Bass Guitar Exercises For Dummies, Improve Your Groove: The Ultimate Guide For Bassand Daily Grooves for Bass. Besides performing and recording, Pfeiffer teaches bass guitar worldwide and often conducts clinics alongside such bass luminaries as Will Lee, John Patitucci, Gerald Veasley, Michael Manring and many more. Pfeiffer’s most recent CD Soul of the City was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts. He holds a Master’s in Jazz from the New England Conservatory

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