How do you know what notes you should be playing for a song?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by DuckSoup, Dec 20, 2017.

  1. DuckSoup


    Dec 20, 2017
    So I'm very new to bass, and currently I'm learning my scales, circle of fifths, notes on the finger-board etc...

    But outside of that I like to listen to some music I enjoy, and improvise some bass lines. Either mimicking what the artist has played, or just adding a touch of my own. Just to take a break from all the music theory stuff and keep me engaged.

    When a song plays, in my mind I know what I want the bass to sound like, but how do you know what notes you should be playing in a song? I know you can go with what feels "Right" but surely there is a science to it. If a certain note feels right, what note is it, and why does that note work? Is it all based on what "Key" a song is written in? Right now I just pluck random strings till I find that note that "Feels" right, but it doesn't feel like the right way to go about it.

    I'm just trying to figure out how you know what to play. If a song plays, I want to be able to say "Ah yeah let's start with a C, then down to a X, then on to an X...etc" Does that make sense? I've been playing drums for over 20 years, and when I hear a song, I can figure out pretty quickly what kind of beat to lay down. I'm trying to figure out how to do that for the bass.

    Thanks guys. My understanding of this may be off, so please offer any insight or suggestions you have.
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  2. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    Check if your local music conservatory or community college offers "music theory 101" continuing/adult-education classes. When I lived in Boston, I took night classes at New England Conservatory. It worked out to be very affordable compared to 1-on-1 private lessons, less than $1,000 for the semester, and the instructor was top-notch.

    At the bare minimum of music literacy, you want to learn: standard music notation, the 12 major scales and key signatures, the 12 minor scales and key signatures, how to construct major/minor/dominant/diminished/augmented chords, and the basics of tonal harmony using Roman numeral analysis. For example if you are at a jam and someone calls "I-V-vi-IV in G" that tells you the chord progression is Gmaj, Dmaj, Emin, Cmaj.

    The number one most important skill for improvisation is developing your ear and increasing your musical vocabulary. It sounds like you are already "ahead of the curve" on that skill, so I think you are already on the right path. Keep learning your favorite songs by ear, and you'll do just fine. :)
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  3. Good question. Hang on I'll get there.......

    If we are talking about the accompaniment bass line, not the tune, we play notes of the harmonizing chord that the song writer has placed in the song. Why? If the melody line (treble clef) and the harmony line (bass clef) share like notes we get harmony, i.e. the two lines sound good with each other. We count on the song writer to place the harmonizing chord where needed and then we play notes of that chord. In doing that we harmonize with the melody and we sound good with what is happening in the song.

    So --- we need to know what chords are active at this moment in the song and play some of their notes to the beat (rhythm) of the song. If our ears are good enough we can rely upon them to tell us what chord is active. My ears are tin, so I rely upon fake chord sheet music. Google can call up fake chord sheet music on just about everything you will need. Use these search words; chords, name of the song. Once you know the active chord play some of it's notes. Yes I know ---- which ones is the question.

    Roots work. After you have found the root a R-5 usually works. Root on the 1st beat and 5 on the 3rd beat. Where is the 5 from the root? Up a string and over two frets, or down a string same fret. Yep, that is where 5ths live. After that I normally bring in a octave 8. Where is the 8 from the root? Up two strings and over two frets, right over the 5. So R-5-8-5 is a generic pattern that will keep you in the game. Roots alone work for Praise music, Roots and fives work for Country and that R-5-8-5 kinda fits with the other stuff.

    Go to the General Instruction section and look for post # 14 in the getting started sticky. How to get started? It will give you the rest of the story.

    Yes there is a structure to follow. Random notes usually result in noise.

    Good luck
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2017
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  4. hrodbert696

    hrodbert696 Moderator Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Are you talking about writing a bass line to a new song or learning the bass line of a song you're covering?

    Either way, yes, it does have to do with the key of the song and all the music theory stuff.

    Western music uses 12 notes, of which any given key normally uses 7. The chords in a song will be formed out of different combinations of those seven notes; the melody, and bass line, will trace a line through them as well. (there are also often "accidentals," notes that aren't in the key but the composer puts them in anyway for dramatic tension or whatever).

    There's no one right or wrong way to build a melody, or a bass line. Anything might work, it's just a matter of what results in the effect you want. But there are some common patterns and it's a good idea to start with those.

    For example, a lot of popular modern music is based on the blues. In blues, the most common chord progression is the I-IV-V, where the roman numerals stand for chords based on those numbers of the scale. So if you're playing in the key of C, the scale is CDEFGAB. The first note (the root) is C, the fourth is F, the fifth is G. (fourths and fifths are called "subdominant" and "dominant" intervals because of how they relate to the root). So your typical blues song is going to play C, F, and G chords, built from those notes.

    As a bass player, to start with, the most fundamental thing is to play the root notes. Just shuffle along on C while the guitarist strums his C chords, shuffle on F while he's strumming F, etc.

    But when you get more comfortable with your scales, and learn how chords are structured, you can start stretching out from the root. For example, a lot of country bass parts bounce along between the root and the fifth. So while the guitarist plays a C chord, the bassist goes C - G - C - G - C - G, etc. When the guitarist switches to F, the bassist goes F - C - F - C etc. (C being the fifth note of the F scale). And so on. A boogie-woogie bass line (like you hear on a lot of rock and roll oldies) bounces up and down each scale from the root to the 7th.

    If you're trying to figure out the bass line of an existing song (without relying on a TAB or sheet music), it's just a matter of knowing the original bassist went through this process and figuring out what he did. So once you figure out what key the song is in, you know which notes he was probably using, and from there it becomes progressively easier to guess where he's going with any given part.
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  5. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    Play notes sounding good or interesting to you over the chord progression being played. Try different rhythm patterns until you come up with something that you feel supports the song.
    Music theory is what you use to analyze and label what you've already played. And good voice leading and counterpoint ideas.
    It's good to be well schooled and to know lots of theory so you can understand in your own mind what you are playing, and can hear and dial up immediately what you want to play before you play it, and to communicate quickly and succinctly with other players who also have a good knowledge of theory. I highly recommend knowing lots of theory. But it's not totally necessary. Have fun!
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2017
    4dog likes this.
  6. fearceol


    Nov 14, 2006
    IMO the above is exactly the right way to go about it, along with some basic theory, as you are doing.

    You say.... "I'm learning my scales, circle of fifths, notes on the finger-board etc..." All good...but does the "etc" include chord tones. Learning scales is a good thing...up to a point, but more is needed. Learning how chords are derived from scales will bring you a lot further than simply practicing scales from root to root.

    Here is a link to a great tutorial site. It is worth going to the "Study Guide" and starting the lessons from the beginning. In this particular link it deals with the importance of chord tones.

    Best of luck..and welcome to the low end. :bassist:

    Chord Tones Are Primary | Bass Chord Patterns | StudyBass
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  7. DuckSoup


    Dec 20, 2017
    Thanks guys for all the feedback.

    For the most part it sounds like I need to continue practicing my music theory, which isn't the most fun thing in the world, but will help make sense of all of this as I start to figure it out.

    One thing I found here just a bit ago is a site that will tell you what keys a lot of popular songs are played in. I may try that out for a bit to learn about certain keys and how bass lines work with those keys.

    Songs in key C Major @ Song Key Finder

    It sounds like I may be on the right track...
    hrodbert696 likes this.
  8. DuckSoup


    Dec 20, 2017
    I'm kind of taking music theory piece by piece. I haven't gotten to chord tones yet, but I know what they are. I just don't want to overwhelm myself all at once. I figured the scales, and notes on the finger-board were a good starting point.
  9. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    Trust your ears, not some random website. The very first song on the list ("Stairway to Heaven") is wrong (it's actually in the key of A minor), so I stopped reading at that point.
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  10. Neon Scribe

    Neon Scribe Supporting Member

    Different styles of music call for different kinds of bass lines, but there are some guidelines that you can use in most situations. The bass provides the harmonic foundation of a song. You will rarely go wrong if you play the root of the chord at every change. This is a good place to start and also a good way to learn the song. The next thing to remember is that the bass provides the rhythmic pulse of the song. You play the important beats. For punk rock, that's every eighth note. If you're playing country, that's going to be the 1 and the 3. If you're playing Latin, it might be a syncopated pattern like a clave. If you're playing swing, it's usually quarter notes, every beat. So what do you play in between the roots? Sometimes you just play more roots, like in punk rock. Usually you will play the fifth, or sometimes the third, of the chord on the strong beats and other notes from the scale derived from the chord between those. Sometimes the pattern changes leading up to a new root at chord changes or other song transitions, which is also a way of signaling to the other musicians that a change is coming. The whole thing should flow like a melody and complement the main melody of the song. Remember, simple is usually better than complicated, but simple is not always easy!
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  11. aesopslyre


    Oct 27, 2007
    Ok, then how would you notate a tune in A minor, since you don’t think it is in c major? Ever heard of a relative minor?
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  12. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    I don't "think" Stairway is in A Minor... I "know" it's in A Minor. This is a fact, not my personal opinion. Yes, I have heard of "relative minor"... we studied this concept in the New England Conservatory adult-education class I mentioned above. ;)

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: Dec 20, 2017
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  13. aesopslyre


    Oct 27, 2007
    Ok, so perhaps you noticed that it has no sharps or flats in the key signature, the same as C major?
  14. Mushroo

    Mushroo Guest

    Apr 2, 2007
    You are falling into a very common music theory "trap" of using your brain, not your senses. Theory really only exists to describe musical sounds. First you need to train your ears to recognize the sounds. Then once you can hear it, the theory will begin to make sense to you.

    An example is that the time signatures 3/4 and 6/8 both have the same number of beats (3 quarter notes, or 6 eighth notes, per measure). But you would be wrong to argue that a song in 3/4 is in 6/8, or that a song in 6/8 is in 3/4. Experienced musicians have trained their ears to hear the difference between 6/8 and 3/4 time. Even though they are "theoretically the same" they feel different.

    It's the same with relative major/minor relationships like C major and A minor. Experienced musicians have trained their ears to hear the difference. You can argue that "Stairway to Heaven is in C major because there are no sharps or flats in the key signature" but you'd be wrong. If you forget about theory for a moment and just listen, you will hear that the song's tonal center or "home" is definitely not C major, but feels strongly like A minor.

    Don't let a little bit of theory stop you from using your senses. Arguing that "Stairway" is in C major is like driving your car into a lake because you are too busy looking at your GPS. ;)
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  15. madbass6

    madbass6 Inactive

    Jan 13, 2009
    I do not give consent to use any of my photos ! please respect that. thank you.
    ear training is what you need!! it takes a lot of practice and patience but well worth it !
    aprod likes this.
  16. Paulabass


    Sep 18, 2017
    Yes there is a science, but 99% of players are doing it by ear training. Learning to hear intervals is absolutely the most important step. If you hear the line in your head, and you can hear the interval to the next note, whether it's a half step, full step, 3rd. etc. you will have most of it licked.
    If you want to know 'WHY?' then learn theory.
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  17. Judge Nickels

    Judge Nickels Supporting Member

    Aug 3, 2015
    I think it is always good to see if you can figure out the root notes of the chord progression in the song and go from there. IMHO, a combination of knowing the chords of the song along with basic knowledge of intervals is what you need to get started with. Once you're playing along to the chords, you can feel around to see which intervals sound best for that song as you build a cool bassline.
  18. monkeyfinger

    monkeyfinger Moderator Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    @DuckSoup, if you really want to learn to play the bass, join a band. Learn theory in conjunction with playing with others. Have fun!
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  19. This is your mistake. You have to analyze songs you know and love to understand how they work theoretically or you will never really learn the theory in a useable way. So don’t “take a break from theory” when plinking along and learning songs. Bridge the gap between theory and practice by analyzing the songs and answer, for yourself, why some notes feel better than others. Memorizing scales and the circle of fifths does nothing for you if you don’t connect the dots from those ideas to how it sounds in music you already know and love.
  20. pbassjbass


    Jun 21, 2013
    The hunting for notes, is ear training, that's good. See if you can find the progressions being used, the theory should help on that (country, rock & roll, blues etc, tends to be I IV V. Sometimes there's a VI or a II.). Use youtube demo's /lessons or tabulature to learn some existing lines. This helps both with the skills and building a vocabulary of lines/licks to use (learn a boogie woogie line and then play variations on it (reordering or leaving out notes, different rhythms), a lot of pop music revolves around those notes). The theory helps tie all this together. Be sure to spend some time playing the songs all the way through. When you work with a band you'll have to go 3-6 minutes (plus or minus) straight without stopping. (and then do it again). If you're not playing to a track use a metronome for a click. I think a good practice session as a bit of everything in it, theory, skills, lick vocabulary, playing full songs.