Theory and Material

When contemplating how to approach this subject from an artistic reasearch point of view, I initially had trouble deciding how much of my work was going to focus on the physical limitation of the bass-musician relationship, notating the more complex harmonics and so forth, and how much was going to focus on the music played. After giving it some thought, I decided that the two complemented each other in such a way that equal care woul have to be given to both aspects of the thesis. 

Music theory and esthetic choice. 


Since this thesis concerns chord playing using harmonics on the upright bass I would like to start by presenting two sound examples I have recorded. The picture to the right is a photograph of my own upright bass, with sound examples of how the plucked harmonics of the G-string sounds. The numbers on the picture indicates more exactly where the harmonics can be played on any bass. (1/3 of the string, for example, will always produce a D harmonic on the G-string, regardless of what bass you're playing). 


Below this text is another sound example. Here I have drawn a map of usable harmonics played with a bow on the upright bass. As a reader, please feel free to try out different combinations of harmonics and make your own chords, it's quite beautiful! 


There is no real formal standard when notating harmonics, however there are some quite common standards frequently used. For this thesis, I have chosen to use Börje Tyboni's method in his book Noter (2005). If a ring is placed above the note (beat 3 in bar 1 of the first voice of the bass for example) the harmonic will be played to sound identical, pitch wise, to the same note had it been played traditionally.


The diamond shaped note heads indicate that the note will not sound the same as it would have, had it been played traditionally (plucked or bowed in this case). It can sometimes be the same note, but in that case the octave will be different.


When I wrote this piece I first contacted a teacher of mine with some questions about how to notate the diferent types of harmonics. the teacher told me that when notating more complex harmonics one could write a diamond shaped note head that indicates where on the instrument the harmonic is played, rather than writing out the resulting pitch.


This means that this sounds like a F#, 

even though it's written as a B.

The same principal applies for all diamond shaped notes, i.e. they are notated where one plays them, disregarding how they pitch.

Starting to implement the techniques

Another way to incorporate harmonics into chord based music is to use artificial harmonics. This means that one forces the instrument to provide access to new harmoncis by shortening the string and then forcing the same string to divide itself into shorter parts of itself. To show what it looks and sounds like I have a video of myself playing this type of harmonic linked below. The technique is used from between 0:29 to 0:50 in the video.

To clarify: What I'm doing in the video is that I am pushing down the string where I would play the note traditionally, but I am then touching the string exactly one octave above where I push it down. I then pluck the string using the ring finger on my right hand.


Another example of this technique can be heard below, where I use the technique to play a bass line for the composition Get With, written by myself in 2019. I wrote the composition as a form of excercise, wanting to improve my versatility in regards to this particular technique. The start of my solo at 1:25 also features the technique, proving that it is possible - if difficult - to ulitize it in solo playing as well as for comping.

Artificial harmonics using the bow


The final technique that I will discuss is almost identical to the previous one. The only difference being that it's played with a bow instead of pizzicato, creating a whole other sound and possibilities technique wise. As mentioned above, through a project with the master students of Högskolan för Scen och Musik, the students were asked to compose music for trio constellations, and in my case the trio consisted of two upright basses and one saxophone. I wanted to try out this final technique in a composition, and so I wrote a short piece were I would play the melody using this technique.


The concept is the same as with artificial harmonics. The string is pushed down (in this case with the thumb) using the left hand and the long finger on the same hand touches the string lighty one fifth above the point of contact. This creates a note that pitches one octave above where the string is touched, accessing registers otherwise impossible on the upright bass. 



I have provided a recording to the right of this text and also a video excerpt showing how the technique is performed. 

Adressing keys  

When Discussing the progess of this thesis with my mentor and teacher Anders Jormin, he kept coming back to the importance of keys. Keys are always a factor to consider when approaching a composition as a bass player, as there are "easier" and "harder" keys on the bass. Keys containing one ore more of the following notes - E, A, D, and G - are ususally considered "easier" to play as the bass player has a reference point for intonation in the open strings. When it comes to harmonics, the same principal applies. As you may have noticed from the harmonics chart above there are several notes from the chromatic scale missing. This posed a serious issue for me - in fact, it made me question the very question I was reseaching: Is there a viable way to use the bass as a chord instrument? To make visible which notes are missing, I wrote down the chromatic scale below, marking playable harmonic note names as Bold and unplayable ones as Italics.


A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab


Since I was content with how the notes of the harmonic chart sounded (even though I knew there were notes in the overtone series that were technically unplayable) I was at an impasse. How could I present a method proclaiming that the upright bass was now a fully functional chord instrument if the method was dependant on certain keys?


After giving the matter some thought, and excluding tuning the bass in anything but fourths, I finally came to the conclusing that even though it is impossible to play any harmonic in any given situation without time to prepare, one can indeed prepare the bass by tuning all strings one half step down or up. This is called Scordatura (italian for mistuning, or retuning)

Doing this gives access to two new versions of the chromatic scale which, if applied to the harmonics chart, would look like this:


 Half step up from EADG (E#A#D#G#)

A#/Bb, B, C, C#, D, D#/Eb, E, E#/F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A 


 Half step down from EADG (EbAbDbGb)

Ab/G#, A, A#/Bb, B, B#/C, C#, D, D#/Eb, E, E#/F, F#/Gb, G



 Using this method allows the bass player to, with some time to prepare, be able to use all notes in the chromatic scale as harmonics to complement root notes as upper structure. A demonstration of this "prepared bass" can be found to the right, which is a video of myself and pianist Antti Lähtesmäki playing the standard Footprints by Wayne Shorter in Cm. The bass is tuned one half step up, allowing me to play the traditional bass line using only harmonics.

As a sidenote I would like to add that this method disregards the use of artificial harmonics. Any note can be played as an artificial harmonic and as such isn't limited by the rules natural harmonics has to abide by. Artificial harmonics are, however, more difficult to utilize since they require three points of contact with the string as opposed to the natural harmonics, which only requires two.


For a short discussion on setup and the use of different strings and material, please click the link below

Please go to

Discussion to proceed reading

Now that we have been aquainted with the sounds of the harmonics, I would like to present an excerpt from a piece that I wrote for a trio project called TRINITY at Högskolan för Scen och Musik fall 2019. The trio I was assigned to consisted of two upright basses and one saxophone. A perfect time indeed for me to try out what I had been working on so far.

In this particular recording, I play the lowest voice of the upritght bass myself. The second voice is played by Simon Rangstedt and the saxophone is played by Jun-Jae Kim. When rehearsing this piece I realized that in order to read the music, one needs a bit more understanding of how to notate harmonics than perhaps the average muciscian. 


Below this text are the first four bars of the composition and a sound recording.

A transcribtion of the bass line played throughout the composition

As a disclaimer: I am well aware of the fact that these are not every posible harmonic available on the upright bass (for a more thorough read into that I would recommend Håkon Thelin's masterful work on multiphonics on the upright bass , where he demonstrates every single harmonic possible to play on the instrument (link here) The purpose of this thesis is not to catalogue every single harmonic available, but to choose which ones could be useful in chord based music. Since the bowed harmonics are easier to produce and are louder volume wise I have inclued more of them.  

Recording of Get With

(For a more indepth look at how to notate harmonics, please click the link to the right)

there is no method within artistic research because to research artistically is in itself a method, or, better, a strategy of undertaking research

- Julian Klein