The Thrill is Gone: A strategy for hearing bass and harmony

I just finished reading through some brief reflections (from students) about what’s hardest for them in the process of hearing ==> processing ==> dictating. While I didn’t learn about any new problems, a strategy for dealing with them did emerge. Many reflected that grabbing onto a note and trying to work out possible harmonies kind of worked for them.  I want to refine that strategy with this activity.

I think students forget that there are likely bass notes and harmonies.  Especially in week 6 of aural skills 1. I want to make a list for them of the three basic bass notes and their functions.  ^1 (tonic), ^5 (dominant OR quick tonic expander) and ^4 (pre-dominant OR quick tonic expander).  I want to layout standard progressions for them so that they have a finite list of guess-and-test candidates.

I’m going to use this B.B. King “The Thrill is Gone” (1970) example because it’s slow, its bass notes emphasize ^1, ^4, and ^5, it repeats its progression often, it has one “unexpected” chord for the more advanced to work on, and it’s musically interesting. I’m going to sandwich it between two clearer examples taken from the folk songs in their course pack.

So, I envision (1) setting up the most basic paradigms of bass lines (NOT Roman numerals); (2) singing them in four parts to feel the color changes; (3) guess and test on three excerpts: course pack, St. Louis Blues, course pack.


Post-Class UPDATE

I didn’t save enough time for this activity.  I also note that this is the first activity where I didn’t estimate how much time it would take.  I sense a connection…

I had about 10 minutes to do the following:

  • gave them four bass-line paradigms: (1-5-1 fast, 1-5-1 cadential, 1-4-1 fast, and 1-4-5-1 cadential).  We sang the bass lines.
  • Walked them through one course pack melody that was harmonized using tonic and dominant chords (some in inversion). They only notated where the harmonic switches were.  They tested their basslines while I played.
  • Did the opening to Beethoven 2/3/i independently, then I gave them the rest of the phrase.  They sang that bassline while listening to the recording.
  • Did “The Thrill is Gone.” The example was good.  The VI chord was most welcome.  And we will revisit this example on Wednesday to make sure they got it.

One additional thing I learned today was that it is good to sometimes just give them the answer and let them experience being right while they know they are right (what I did with Beethoven 2/3/i, opening phrase).  If they don’t have those positive experience to build on, I suspect the learning curve will be slower.

Here’s my low-tech handout.

One more Update (from the next class, when we revisited this)

I returned to this activity 48 hours later because I didn’t think students had a good learning experience guess-and-testing bass notes.  In my 9am section, I provided them with the correct bass notes for this 12-bar blues.  We then tried to sing some wrong bass notes along with the recording.  However, the “wrong” bass notes felt just fine: ^5 on a IV chord is a 9th… hardly a dissonance in this texture.  ^4 on a V chord is so ubiquitous it feels consonant (in the sense of “it belongs”) in almost any music.

So, I learned that I needed to have them arpeggiate a predominant chord within dominant space (or vice versa) to have the visceral experience of being wrong that I wanted them to have.  Rather than arpeggiate on numbers, I had them sing ^4 on the word “four” and then sustain that word through the arpeggiation.  This way, they can focus on the overall sound of the chord, rather than the specific numbers in it.

The next time I use this example or teach this skill, I will remember (hopefully) to arpeggiate entire chords when guessing and checking…

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