“I CALL ARCHITECTURE FROZEN music,” said the German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was commenting on the relationships of form and function that both architecture and music share.
A beautiful building stands only because all of its structural elements are silently working together. Music also contains many fundamental elements that underpin the architecture of a song. Without the underlying structure, there is no beauty, no groove, no funk, no blues. In the next few Woodsheds, we’ll look at how triads form the foundation of bass lines and melodies.
Triads are built with a root, 3rd, and 5th. An easy way to build a triad is to use the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a scale (Ex. 1). Triads can be constructed starting on any note of the scale, and these three-note chords are always built in intervals of 3rds.
Depending on the type of triad, the root to 3rd can be an interval of a major 3rd (four half-steps in distance), or a minor 3rd (three half-steps in distance). The major 3rd interval is abbreviated M3, the minor 3rd interval is abbreviated m3 (Ex. 2). The distance from the 3rd to the 5th can also be either a M3 or a m3 interval.
There are four types of triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished (Ex. 3). Play through Ex. 4 a few times to hear the differences in sound. The most common triads are major and minor, but it’s important to know and understand diminished and augmented triads as well.
Playing triads should become automatic for you. By working through all 12 keys using various triad patterns, you can solidify your command of triads. You should be able to glance at any chord symbol and play the appropriate triad. Example 5 shows a triad exercise through the cycle of 5ths. The chords in Ex. 6 move through a random progression of triads in all 12 keys.
Now that you’ve played through all of the exercises with major triads, go back to Examples 5 and 6, playing them all with minor triads. See Ex. 7 to get started.
The triads that you have played so far have been in root position. A root-position triad starts on the root of the chord; for example, the root-position C major triad starts on the note C. Triads can also be inverted: The 1st inversion of a C major triad starts on the 3rd (E), and the 2nd inversion starts on the 5th (G). Example 8 shows the 1st inversion of a C major triad. Example 9 uses the 2nd inversion.
Many bassists get stuck only being able to effectively play triads in root position, but you can add color and spice to your lines by using the triad inversions as well. Listen to Jimmy Blanton, Ron Carter, Steve Swallow, and Jeff Berlin, and you will hear that they often use inversions of chords. By mastering these basic building blocks of music, you will always be able to describe the harmony of a song.
Using the chord progressions in Examples 5 and 6, play all of the triads in 1st inversion, starting on the 3rd of each chord. See Ex. 10 to get started. Now play all of the triads in 2nd inversion, starting on the 5th of each chord. See Ex. 11 to get started.
To make things more practical, let’s play a couple of blues choruses. The solo in Ex. 12 is a blues progression in C, and the entire solo consists of notes from each triad—nothing else. In a real-life musical situation, we would add some extra notes—other chord tones, scale tones, and passing tones—but for this exercise, we’ll stick exclusively to triads. The simplicity of Ex. 12 shows the power of triads, and we can clearly hear the harmony changing from chord to chord.
Remember that your musical house is only as strong as the building blocks that you use. Master triads in all inversions, and you will be on your way to an unshakable foundation on the bass.