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Theory Talk

"I have really enjoyed your video series. They have been tremendous helps in my development as a bass player. In fact, I repeatedly watch your videos and learn something new each time.

The section “Modes and Intervals” in Volume 2 left me with a couple of questions. Would you please elaborate on what is meant by playing over a chord. Also, after learning these modes, how do you integrate them into the song?

I have been playing bass for six months and have been playing in church for 2 months, so I've had to work extremely hard to be able to contribute. No musical experience and 38 years old."

- James Y. (via e-mail)

I'm really glad that you've been finding the Grooving videos helpful. In answer to your question about the modes: fundamentally, application of the modes (in the context of coming up with harmonically correct and interesting bass lines) involves playing notes within the scale or mode that correspond with a particular chord.

Let me give you an example based on a typical pop situation (i.e. not delving into the jazz world of using “outside” notes to create tension).

If a certain song was in the key of C, you'd commonly find chords in that piece like Dmin, Emin, FMaj, etc. Well, if you applied the modes, you'd see that D is the 2nd degree relative to C (the key of the tune, where you'd play the 1st or Ionian Mode)...so your palette of available notes (while the guitarist & keyboardist are pounding out that Dmin chord) would be the 2nd mode using D as the root, which would be D Dorian. That mode would be defined by the intervals 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, and b7.

However, if you encountered an Amin chord in that same tune, it would call for a different scale than the A Dorian (even though you might reason that Dmin and Amin are both minor chords which should accommodate the same scale). The critical factor is that YES, they're both minor chords...but they each have a distinct and separate function within the key of C. Looking back at that Amin chord, you can quickly determine that A is the 6th degree relative to the key of the tune (which is still C)...so that palette of notes would be found in the 6th or Aeolian Mode using A as the root. The Aeolian Mode (also commonly known as the Natural Minor Scale) is defined by the intervals 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, and b7. If you compare the Dorian Mode with the Aeolian Mode, you can see that the 6th interval makes the distinction between the two. If you were noodling through your bass line while everyone is strumming that Amin chord, and your embellishment included the 6th (vs. b6), that would be in conflict with the Aeolian Mode that should apply.

Walk through the above explanation with bass in hand; I think it will help make sense of this stuff. It's actually not nearly as complicated as it sounds.


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