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The Human Capacity for Music by PW Farrell



PW Farrell BassistIn the previous article, we discussed the physics of sound, how we perceive pitch and how these factors influence music. The next logical thing to look at is the truly human capacity for performing music. As we discover what facilitates our music making, we may also be reminded of what motivates us to make music in the first place.

Obviously, evolutionary biology is a huge subject; far beyond the scope of both my expertise and this publication. This is not an all encompassing account of the theory of evolution applied to music, but, rather, one possible thread of adaptations which contributed to our capacity for music; an exposé of human traits that directly influenced our capacity for music, and yet, are largely ignored in musical education.

First we are going to look at an evolutionary adaptation that I promise you’ve never considered, and yet arguably sets us apart from the rest of the monkey gang as much as Mariah Carey’s lovely descended larynx.

Let’s consider what makes us different from the rest of the primate family. A short list of ‘highlights’ might look something like this:

  • upright posture
  • bipedal locomotion
  • big, fat and juicy brain
  • descended larynx
  • the dexterous human hand

Baby Face

What many people don’t recognise the significance of, is the neoteny of the human skull (Bannan, 1999). Unlike all other primates, the facial structure of a human being changes very little through life. Yeah, you might get a slightly squarer jaw and you might choose to groom a beard, but in comparison to the dramatic changes for the rest of primate-land, we really are quite kid-like throughout our lives. In addition, we did away with that pesky fur masking our lovely facial expressions, and we have finer motor control over those expressions. Think about what that means: we are the only primate capable of real facial mimicry between adult and child (Bannan, 1999).

The human capacity for communication evolved long before the development of speech, and to this day, one of the critical ways we continue to communicate – or ‘channels of affect communication’ – is facial expression. Could the complexity of human facial mimicry have helped promote neurological adaptions beyond those of other primates? There is little doubt that via the human facial affect channel a new depth of interactivity, and possibly even a new depth of emotional connectivity was being developed. So we could make baby faces: what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal when you consider that music is the sound of mimicry, empathy and expression.

For us as musicians, this is cause for reflection: are we empathetic and expressive as performers? Do we respect and absorb the lessons of our musical elders?

A Tiger… In Africa!?

To conceptualise music, to comprehend pitches and rhythmic figures as real tangibles, requires another truly human capacity. In “Design Features of Language”, Charles Hockett identifies the human knack for communicating subject matter that is displaced from the present moment. This nifty little skill is extremely rare in the animal kingdom. It turns out, that only bees and ants come close. Honeybees can indicate the location of food using movement signals (the ‘Waggle-dance’) and some species of ants summon reinforcements using a combination of olfactory and movement signals.

Consider the immediate ramifications of this skill for ancient man. Without the cerebral processing necessary for abstract comprehension, basic warnings would be impossible. How could you, for example, say (or grunt, or stomp your feet, to indicate) ‘There is a tiger coming! Seriously dude! Quit your solitaire and run!’ Without the capacity for displacement, the best you could do would be ‘Dude, check it out! There’s a tiger eating my leg!’

Now consider this: C to G is a perfect 5th. How did you comprehend that? Did you imagine the harmony as you read those words? Abstract thought is possibly our greatest triumph: it gave us the ability to plan a hunt, prepare for danger, and codify and articulate musical concepts. Further research must be conducted into the cerebral processes involved in displacement and how they compare with those involved in musical performance. It would seem they are one and the same, or at the very least, interrelated. The lesson for us here, is that music represents a great leap forward in cerebral processing. Every time we pick up our instruments, we are both exercising and celebrating this triumph. The art of codifying music, the mnemonics used to internalise and pass on these systems of codification, go back to ancient times. Sure Guido of Arezzo gave us the stave around 1020 AD and much has happened since, but the ability to intellectualise units of pitch as fragments of a musical system can be traced back to those earliest cerebral advances leading to our survival and eventual dominance as a species.


This brings us to an interesting juncture: where does aural signalling end and music begin?

Another of Charles Hockett’s “Design Features of Language” is “Rapid Fading”. What he refers to, is the transitoriness of aural signals; speech dissipates almost immediately – unlike written language and signage. The transitory nature of speech, and the ease with which it is transmitted, makes it a valuable survival tool. So why would we, as a species, take our efficient signalling system and turn it into loud, sustained chanting and/or drum beating, thus nullifying its benefit to us as a survival tool? The answer may lie in Dr Amotz Zahavi’s “Handicap Principle”. The basic premise of his theory is that male animals often display their strength and vitality by exhibiting a handicap lesser-males would not get away with. For example, the bird of paradise sports a beautiful three foot long tail which inhibits its movement and signals its whereabouts to predators. The proposition is that such displays are a signal to others that the male in question is actually extremely fit, strong and ultimately desirable as a mate precisely because it has thrived despite the apparent handicap.

So what does all this nerdy jargon have to do with music? Well think about it: our ancient forefathers (and mothers) used sound as an efficient means of survival; crucial in orchestrating a hunt and indispensable in escape. A click of the tongue could mean ‘Stop, I hear something’. Two clicks might mean ‘Run and hide’. But after the hunt in safer surrounds, sound could be sustained and loud in an act of defiance, bravado and (in Zahavi’s logic) dominance: ‘I am so fit and strong that you can’t catch and kill me, despite me giving away my location with all this chanting and stomping’. It is easy to imagine how this bravado gave way to habit and the birth of musical celebration. It is also a timely reminder that music was never meant to be a distraction but, rather, an integral, important facet of life; as real as the scent of blood on the hunter’s hands as he dropped the spear and began clapping to the pulse of music.

New Dog, Old Tricks

So far we have discussed a possible catalyst for the deep expressiveness and empathy found in musical performance: facial mimicry. We have discussed the human capacity for conceptualising abstract concepts, as exhibited in ‘displacement’, and how without that capacity, codified music would be impossible. We then looked at why we chose to take an efficient means of signalling and turn it into something different. Now we are going to consider the influences that have shaped the aesthetic of human music. Why do we, for instance, enjoy the sound of reverb? Why does Shostakovich’s brass invoke a different response to, for example, Debussy’s flute? Or in electric bass terms: why do we describe Jaco’s tone as sweet, and Robert Trujillo’s tone as harsh?

What is interesting about our reactions to timbre, harmonic qualities and dynamics is that they have their roots in truly ancient, pre-human times.

In their paper “Emotional responses to music: The need to consider underlying mechanisms”, Julslin and Vastfjall write:

“…an emotion is induced by music because one or more fundamental acoustical characteristics of the music are taken by the brain stem to signal a potentially important and urgent event… sounds that are sudden, loud, dissonant, or feature fast temporal patterns induce arousal or feelings of unpleasantness in listeners… The perceptual system is constantly scanning the immediate environment in order to discover potentially important changes or events. Certain sound qualities are indicative of change, such as sudden or extreme sounds, sounds that change very quickly, or sounds that are the result of strong force or large size. Sounds that meet certain criteria (e.g., fast, loud, noisy, very low- or high-frequenced) will therefore produce an increased activation of the central nervous system.”

Current popular theory suggests the brain stem pre-dates human existence by 415 million years. In the 1960s, neuroscientist Paul MacLean famously grouped the brain stem, cerebellum and other structures of the lower brain into what he termed ‘The Reptilian Complex’, after his assertion that these structures first emerged in reptiles. However, further research has found these structures to be common in all vertebrates.

By the time music reaches the auditory cortex, it has already passed through such ancient brain structures as the superior olivary complex, the inferior colliculus, and the thalamus (Kolsch & Siebel, 2005) which all analyse the auditory signal for signs of change or danger.

“Brain stem reflexes are “hard-wired.” Thus, for instance, the perceived pleasantness and unpleasantness of sensory consonance and dissonance reflect how the hearing system divides frequencies into critical bandwidths: If the frequency separation of two tones is either very small or larger than the critical bandwidth, the tones will be judged as consonant. If the separation is about one-fourth of a critical band, the tones will be judged as maximally dissonant.” (Lipscomb & Hodges, 1996).

Sensory dissonance is suggestive of “danger” in natural environments, because it occurs in the “threat” and “warning” calls of many species of animals (Ploog, 1992). Dissonance, therefore, has been selected by evolution, as an unlearned negative reinforcer of behaviour (Rolls, 2007).

In other words, while things like logarithmic processing and the harmonic series (as covered in the last article) can explain much about sound and hearing, they shed no light on why we react the way we do to different types of sound. Many researchers believe these reactions were formed in ancient times, arguably even pre-human times, as a means to survival.

Ok… So what?

What does this mean? It means music is awesome! It touches on primal instincts, draws on advanced cognition and invokes genuine human feelings of empathy. It means, that we as musicians, should be mindful of the importance of music. We should imagine the ancient warrior, having fought for his life, heart pounding with adrenaline, his cries of elation melding into musical celebration. Think of the ancient mother, surviving against all odds through child birth. Remember her nursing her child, making faces to that child, and fostering a depth of empathy unique to humanity. Bring this to your music: Listen With Love.

Finally, remember as you play, that you are exercising all the advanced cognitive powers that saw us rise to become the first truly dominant animal on this earth. You and I, as musicians, are carrying a flag worth hoisting high.

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Bass Edu

BASS LINES: Triads & Inversions Part II



Jaime David Vazquez - Lessons For Bass Guitar

BASS LINES: Triads & Inversions Part II

Hello bass players and bass fans! In this issue, we are going to study the triads and their inversions.

In the last lesson, we were studying triads in their fundamental position. This time, we are going to study what is known as the first inversion of the triads.

The first inversion consists of the third going on the bass in the triad, as we will see below:

C Major Triad (1st inversion)
E – G – B
C Minor Triad (1st inversion)
Eb – G – B
C Diminished Triad (1st inversion)
Eb – Gb – C
C Augmented Triad (1st inversion)
E – G# – C

See you next month for Part III… GROOVE ON!!!

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Bass Edu

Approach Notes – Part 6 



James Rosocha

Approach Notes – Part 6 

As we move into lesson six of approach notes applied to chord tones, it’s important to go back and review the previous approaches. The constant review and application of these concepts will add a layer of chromaticism to both your bass lines and solos. The approaches need to be burned into your long term/ permanent memory for them to come out in your playing. 

This first example approaches a third inversion of a G major 7th arpeggio. 

A single chromatic approach from below and a double chromatic approach from above approaches the 7th, continue to the root, 3rd, 5th, single from below and double chromatic from above to the 7th, continue to the root, 3rd, and back down. 

The next example approaches the G major arpeggio in root position.

The next example approaches the root of a G major 7th arpeggio as a single chromatic from below and a double chromatic approach from above -before continuing to the third, fifth, seventh, single chromatic from below/ double from above to the root, continue to the third, fifth, and come back down. 

The next example approaches the first inversion of G major 7th arpeggio. 

A single chromatic from below/ double from above approaches the third, continue to the fifth, seventh, root, single chromatic from below/ double from above to the third, continue up to the fifth and seventh, and back down. 

The third example approaches a second inversion of a G major arpeggio

A single chromatic from below/ double from above approaches the fifth, continue to the 7th, root, 3rd, single from above/ double from below to the 5th, continue to the 7th, root, and back down.

After studying these various approach notes, you will begin to recognize the concepts utilized in your favorite solos. Continue the journey and good luck! 

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Bass Edu

BASS LINES: Triads & Inversions Part I



Jaime David Vazquez - Lessons For Bass Guitar

Triads & Inversions Part I

Hello bass players and bass fans! In this issue, we are going to study the triads and their inversions.

It is very important for all bassists to understand and master the triads, but it is even more important to understand their different inversions.

In Part I, we are going to learn what the triad is in fundamental position.

The Formula consists of root, third and fifth.

Degrees of the Triad

Major Triad: 1 – 3 – 5
Minor Triad: 1 – b3 – 5
Diminished Triad: 1 – b3 – b5
Augmented Triad: 1 – 3 – #5

Fig.1 – The C, Cm, Cdim & Caug triads
(Fundamental Position)

BASS LINES: Triads & Inversions Part I
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Bass Edu

Premiere! Bass Playthrough With Foetal Juice’s Bassist Lewis Bridges – From the Album, Grotesque



Premiere! Bass Playthrough With Foetal Juice's Bassist Lewis Bridges - From the Album, Grotesque

Premiere! Bass Playthrough With Foetal Juice’s Bassist Lewis Bridges – From the Album, Grotesque

Bassist Lewis Bridges Shares…

“Gruesome’s sparse intro marks a stark contrast from the intensity of the rest of the album.  The original intention was to keep the bass simple but colourful, however as I worked on it, the lines grew more expressive and the more striking flourishes began to emerge.  The intensity builds into a harmonic minor passage that takes us into the drop — a signature death grind cacophony.  This is where Foetal Juice thrives.  You’re getting a full-on right-hand barrage to in the face to take you into a groove-laden mulch-fest.

I owe my throbbing bass tone to the Darkglass Alpha Omega pedal borrowed from our sound engineer, Chris Fielding (ex-Conan), mixed with the clarity of the tried and true Ampeg SVT CL.

As mentioned earlier, colourful basslines are important, especially in a one-guitar band. Chucking some funny intervals and odd flourishes here and there brings life into the brutality. There’s no point sounding brutal if it’s not gonna be fucking evil too!

Recording this playthrough was hard work. This was not the fault of James Goodwin (Necronautical), who was kindly filming and is ace to work with, but because in true Foetal fashion, we had stinking hangovers — and that jam room was hot!”

Follow Online

FB @FoetalJuice
TW @FoetalJuice
IG @foetaljuice
Youtube: @Foetaljuice

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Bass Lines: The Circle



jaime Vazquez

Bass Lines: The Circle…

Hello bass players and fans of bass! This month we’re going to study “The Circle.”

The Circle of Fourths can also be called “The Circle of Fifths or just The Circle.

Practicing the scales, chords, and ideas in general via the circle has been a common practice routine for jazz musicians and highly recommended.

It is a disciplined way of working through all twelve keys.

Plus, many bass root movements to jazz and pop songs move through sections of the circle.

Fig. 1 – “The Circle”

See you next month for more full bass attack!

#bassmusicianmag, #basslines, #bmmbasslines, #groovemaniac, #thecircle, #thecircleoffourths, #thecircleoffifths,#scales & #chords.

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