Discovering DADGAD with David Mead: Three Point Turn
This month, I’m continuing my quest to make some of the more basic elements of music composition and harmony as simple as possible to understand. We’ve considered some of the devices available to you before: using thirds and sixths to harmonise a melody, repetitive bass grooves and so on, but now we’re going to look at how we can make even the most simple melody sound complete by learning a little about adding bass notes.
If you were to take a sample of 100 pieces of folk or Celtic music, you’d be quite likely to find that many of them have fewer chords in them than you might think. A piece of music can sound quite complex when it has undergone an arrangement or a little orchestration, but stripped down to their underpants most tunes are incredibly simple in construction. In fact, many of them contain no more than three chords.
In order to understand this, you’ll have to bear with me a little as I condense a few hundred years of musical evolution into just a few sentences. First of all, we know that melodies are drawn from scales and that the harmony we place on top or underneath draws from the same basic builder’s yard. In other words, if you are playing a song in the key of D major, you’re likely to find that all the harmony, melody, basslines and chord tones share the one resource: the D major scale. Over the years, it’s become commonplace for songs to centre around three specific points of the scale: the first, fourth and fifth notes. So if we study a song in D, we’re probably going to see the chords D, G and A7 cropping up all the way through. These three points in the scale are a bit like music’s very own three point turn. The D chord represents “home”, the G chord is “away” and the A7 is the signpost back to the start. But, sometimes, we don’t even need to go as far as playing chords underneath a melody, often just some carefully placed bass notes are all you need to underpin a tune and make it sound full and complete.
To illustrate this I’ve written out the D major scale using the notes D, G and A as bass notes. Take a look at examples 1-3.
If you play through example 1, you’ll hear how each scale tone sounds pretty much ok against the D bass. Some are a better fit than others, but basically everything sounds acceptable. Next, if you play through example 2, you’ll get to hear what the scale sounds like supported by the note G. Once again, it doesn’t sound at all bad in that there are none of those really grating dissonances that sometimes occur when one note is played randomly against another. Now play through example 3; this time, everything sounds OK, but you’re left feeling that it’s a work in progress at the end. It doesn’t really seem to finish satisfactorily. This is because A is the signpost back to D and not strong enough to finish the job by itself; in other words, we need to hear a D at the end to sign everything off.
So the results are that the D scale sounds right over D, perhaps a little distracted over the G and a bit lost over the A. But if we put them together so that they fall at the correct places under a simple melody, everything suddenly becomes coherent and satisfying.
To ram this point home even further, I’ve written a very easy to play melody and harmonised it by inserting the correct bass notes in all the right places. If you play the melody by itself to begin with, you’ll get an idea of what exactly is going on. Then play it again with the bass part in place and you should find that it sounds far better. This is because it’s been correctly “punctuated” by the three notes of the D scale that are there to give the ear some idea of structure. Just like a sentence from a novel reads well when the punctuation is there to help with the phrasing and overall flow, the bass notes give the melody a shape that the ear can detect.
So play through ‘Three Point Turn’ (example 4) a few times and then try to embellish the melody with a few ideas of your own. I’ve left a lot of space in order to make this possible. After a little while spent experimenting, I’m sure that you’ll begin to hear how easy it is to produce similar results in your own compositions!