Singing basslines is the most direct way to learn the sound of a chord progression and a primary practice to improve your aural skills. The practice is so effective because it creates a kind of feedback loop to your ears. As you listen to your voice produce a bassline, you learn how it works with the key, chord qualities and even the melody if there is one. As a result, you internalize the sound and function of the bass movement and memorize chord progressions with greater ease.
What is Singing Basslines?
Why is Bass so Important?
For example, try the following: change the bass note of any root position chord in a chord progression that you know. Change it to another chord tone, either the 3rd or 5th. At first, it will probably sound ‘wrong’ but if you hang in with it, you will likely find something new to work with because the bass note defines the sound more than any other. Therefore singing basslines is the best place to start when trying to understand a chord progression.
Try the experiment in reverse. While many of the chords in common progressions feature the root as the lowest note, you will often find chords with other notes in the bass (in inversion). When you do, try substituting the root and hear the effect.
How Can I Learn to Accurately Hear Basslines?
Singing Basslines...Some Thoughts:
When I was a music education undergrad at Jersey City State University, aural skills was my nightmare course and Dr. W. was my nightmare professor. For four semesters, Dr.W. doled out dictations and homework assignments without a hint of humor.
He would sit at his desk in what looked like a cloud of frustration and challenge us to sight sing examples from the classic, Music for Sight Singing by Robert W. Ottman. As could be expected, the melodies became harder as we advanced into the text.
However, singing basslines or even the discussion of the function of the bass was completely absent from our class activities. It wasn’t a beautiful thing.
Teaching at Berklee College of Music
On the other side, I had teachers outside of the university that told me I had to learn to ‘hear’ the qualities, intervals, tensions and chord progressions. They said, singing basslines was of utmost importance. But how was I to do that? Did I have to learn to sing the exact line that a bassist played on the recording? A clear answer never came.
In the end, I managed to pass Dr. W’s class by doing my best to memorize the ever more difficult solfege melodies. Over time, after years of learning tunes and working as a musician, I began to function quite well by ear on an intuitive level.
Imagine my surprise when, at a Berklee College of Music interview, I was asked if I’d like to teach ear training? It was only after I’d accepted the position that I began to analyze the process of teaching aural skills and Dr. W served as my negative model during my first year. For example, whenever I became stuck with any aspect of my lesson planning, I’d ask myself, “What would Dr. W. do?”
And then I’d do the opposite.
It was during my time as a full-time faculty member at Berklee when I began the process of creating my method, Performance Ear Training based upon a set of Study Concepts that form the foundation of my text.
Harmonic Basslines is one of those study concepts. And yes, there are many others, i.e. Tension Melodies, Straight Line Exercise, Harmonic Tonal Tensions, Phrase Superimposition, Growing Melodies and Cycle 4 Intervallic Exercises.
As I said, Dr. W. never challenged us to sing basslines, so it was a given that I had to find a way to convert the moving vertical structures of harmony into the limitations of the human voice. Unless we’re talking about Tibetan throat singers, most folks sing one note at a time. As a result I came up with a proven system called Harmonic Basslines that I’ve taught to aspiring musicians all over the world.
What My Students and Colleagues Say
Mr. Mixon is a highly accomplished performer, composer and arranger, and a devoted teacher/clinician and administrator with broad experience on an international level.
Donovan was an exciting addition to our camp curriculum. I was amazed at how easily he was to adapt to not only different age ranges but levels of ability. From first day beginners to advanced players, Donovan took command of his students' attention in a very subtle way. They respected and liked him. I felt lucky to observe him in the classroom and found his vast knowledge of music curriculum astounding.
I was first introduced to Donovan Mixon in my home town Ferrara, Italy when I was a young student trying to leam everything he could about music and improvisation. At that time Donovan was teaching and performing extensively in my country. Hearing him play his compositions really inspired me to pursue my own style both as a composer and a performer.
Naturally I was pleased to learn of Mr. Mixon's credentials and accomplishments at our first meeting at Kennedy-King College. However his personal history: dedication to music, jazz, education, and world travels made an even greater impression upon me. After only a cursory perusal of his background and references I was chagrined at the cold reality of budget restrictions that precluded my ability to bring him on board in our music department immediately.
At Berklee Donovan was regarded as a hard working successful academic and teacher among his peers and the student population. His service to the college in both the department of ear-training and ensembles were seen as very important contributions to curriculum design and systems of evaluation and are still in use today.
Performance Ear Training offers a trustworthy and elegant self study map.(It) has my unequivocal endorsement.
I recommend Donovan Mixon’s Performance Ear Training to all professional drummers. It works! Our most important duty is supporting the band and the key to that is “listening”. Performance Ear Training taught me the importance of that.
It really sharpened my hearing and understanding of pitch relationships - pitch in general. I find myself much better able to direct my students to harmonic patterns and get them thinking about the underlying chord structures of what they are playing. What you get out of it is ‘refinement’.
As for the P.E.T .: it changed my life !!! I was able to sharpen my ear, improve my approach to the instrument, tackle harmonic turns without knowing the songs. Thanks Don for all this!
This class has improved my literacy with jazz and music in general. It has really helped me to listen a lot better.
I recommend this method to the serious student who wants to move from point “A” to point “B” in a logical progression of activities for the development of “hearing” on the instrument.
As a drummer, I’ve always envied the ability to instantly recognize harmonies, melodies, tension... If it weren’t for Mr. Mixon’s course, harmony would be like math class since I don’t play other instruments. His system helps me hear the harmonic concepts we worked on in the class.
It really works! The course is incredible in that now I'm able to hear the relationships between notes, chords, and keys - where I am in a key center. I imagine in an improvisational context, can map out what others are doing and respond deliberately.