Developing a Sixth Sense for Melody

June 9, 2014

WHY DO SOME BASSISTS PLAY MORE MELODICALLY THAN OTHERS? It’s not that they possess a 6th sense—a mysterious talent channeled only by mystics and bass gods. Their well-kept secret? They’ve mastered the fundamentals of music technique and theory. Melodic bassists have a good command of wide interval jumps—6ths and 7ths—and these large intervals make for compelling, melodic lines. Intervals are the building blocks of music, and you can improve your playing by learning to use intervals in a musical way.

Intervals of 6ths and 7ths usually require crossing over two strings, or shifting positions, so they are harder to grab on the fingerboard than smaller intervals like 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths. But the 6th interval is useful to have under your fingers all over the bass. Practice large intervals and you’ll develop your 6th sense for melodic playing!

There are two types of 6ths that you should know. The interval of a major 6th can be determined from any note by counting up or down nine half-steps (Ex. 1). The interval of a minor 6th is found by counting up or down eight half-steps (Ex. 2). Play a major scale in broken-6th intervals, and you’ll see and hear that some of the intervals are major 6ths and some minor 6ths (Ex. 3).

Bass lines, solos, and chords can all be analyzed by the relationships between intervals. Intervals that are played successively (one after the other) are called melodic intervals, horizontal intervals, or linear intervals. Two notes played simultaneously, such as the notes in a chord, or in a double-stop on the bass, line up vertically and are described as a harmonic interval or vertical interval.

A minor 6th interval can also be named an augmented 5th, depending on the key signature and how accidentals are used. For example, a C7#5 contains a minor-6th interval between the notes C and G#. An Fm7 chord also has a minor-6th interval between the notes C and the Ab above it; the G# and Ab in both chords are the same pitch, but are written differently to fit the harmonic construction. Similarly, the minor-6th interval sounds the same, whether it is C to G# or C to Ab. The Ab and G# are called enharmonic equivalents (two spellings of the same note). The intervals C to Ab and C to G# are both minor-6th intervals, even though the notes are spelled differently, and the notes function differently in each chord.

You can play any scale in 6ths, like the E harmonic minor in Ex. 4. Apply this exercise to some of the scales you already have under your fingers. If you’re used to playing scales up and down diatonically or in 3rds, this exercise will force you out of your comfort zone and into a world of melodic leaps and bounds.

The inversion of a 6th interval yields another melodic friend of ours, the 3rd. Example 5 shows that the major 3rd interval (notated as “3”) between the notes C and E, when inverted, becomes a minor 6th (m6) interval between the notes E and C. The minor 3rd (m3) interval between the notes C and Eb, when inverted, becomes a major 6th (6) interval between the notes Eb and C.

Example 6 is an excerpt from my solo on the Bb blues “Misterioso” [Live at the Nachbar, Bass Lion 2008, bass solo starts at 3:40]. Alto saxophonist Jacob Duncan ends his solo with a quote of the original Thelonious Monk melody, which is based on 6th intervals. For my bass solo, I pick up on Duncan’s idea and play the entire first 12 bars only using intervals of major and minor 6ths. I use two proven devices for building an interesting solo: quoting from the melody, and repeating musical phrases. I am referring to the original melody, but also altering some of the rhythms for a surprise effect. The glue that holds this solo chorus together is the combination of minor-6th and major-6th intervals.

Learning to play melodic bass lines and solos is not hard, once you’ve mastered some basic technical and theoretical material. By using 6th intervals in your lines and solos, you’ll open up your playing, and become known as a melodic bassist. Develop your 6th sense!


Learn To Recognize 6th Intervals

Many common songs begin with an interval of a major 6th or minor 6th. You can train your ear to recognize these intervals by listening to songs and recognizing the first interval of the melody. Start by singing the interval to any of these melodies; then pick up your bass and match the pitches. This is great ear training on a very practical level.

Songs Beginning With Major 6th Ascending
“All Blues”
“Days of Wine and Roses”
“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”
“Speak Low”
“Soul Man”
“Take the A Train”
“When Sunny Gets Blue”
NBC Theme

Songs Beginning With Minor 6th Ascending
“In My Life”
“Manhã de Carnaval”
“The Entertainer”

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