Electronic Music Theory: Analyzing Dubstep Basslines – Datsik’s “3 Fist Style”

This week we’re going to continue our electronic music theory posts analyzing dubstep basslines by looking at the track “3 Fist Style” by Canadian DJ/producer Datsik.


Who did that to you?

He is a lone wolf, many enemies, his name is Datsik…

- sampled kung-fu movie dialogue from the track “3 Fist Style” (Basshead, 2010) by Datsik

I have chosen this track because the notes that comprise its bassline come from a single scale or mode, but rather an unusual one, the double harmonic major scale, sometimes also referred to as the “Byzantine” or “Arabic” scale in some sources (although these names are not really historically accurate). This is not one of the first scales you will learn in a typical music theory class and hopefully it will give you some new ideas about creating basslines. Before we look at this in more detail though, let’s take a step back and consider a larger question, namely:

What Is A Scale Anyway?

In music theory, a scale is nothing more than a specific set of notes that forms the basis of a musical composition. There are many types of scales, with five, six, seven or more notes, but some types are much more common than others in the music we are used to hearing. We can find what scale is being used in a given piece of music by analyzing what notes are being used, the pattern of intervals between those notes, and the root or tonal center of the piece, the one note that is the most important and that provides a reference point for everything else.

Probably the most familiar scale in Western music is C Major, made up of all the white keys on the keyboard starting on C:

What notes are used here? If we spell them out in order, we have C D E F G A B.

What is the pattern of intervals? As we move from one note to another here, we are either moving to an adjacent white key, what we call a half step or minor second, or skipping one black key and then to the next white key, what we call a whole step or major second. If we look at the pattern of this major scale then, we have:

C – whole step – D – whole step – E – half step – F – whole step – G – whole step – A – whole step – B – half step – and then back to C, where we started.

What is the root or tonal center here? In this case, playing this scale on the keyboard, we hear C as the root, simply because we played it first and it is the lowest note sounding here. This is very important, because hearing the C as the root is what makes us hear the rest of the scale as a major scale with its characteristic happy, sunny, optimistic sound.

How do we know which note is the root of a given piece of music? Generally it is not hard to tell which note is the root, it is simply the most prominent single note in the entire piece, the one that is repeated the most. In electronic dance music, the root will generally be the most prominent note in the bassline, the note that the bassline circles around and keeps coming back to. (BTW, if you look back at the previous track analyzed in this series, “Root” by Loefah, you’ll see that the title itself is a sort of music theory pun: the bassline of this track contains ONLY one note, the root…)

If we keep all the same notes in our music but change the root (by changing the bass note, for example), it will have a huge effect on the sound and vibe of the scale as a whole, which brings us to our next point.

What Is A Mode?

Whenever the topic of scales comes up, you will often hear the word mode used as well. Any given scale or set of notes will have a number of different modes, depending on which note is the root, and each mode has its own characteristic sound or mood. To hear what a huge difference the root note has on the overall sound, try these two simple exercises:

1) play a low C on your MIDI keyboard with your left hand and hold it down, and then play the other notes of the scale in order with your right hand in a higher range on the keyboard, C D E F G A B; this is the sound of C Major.

2) moving on, play a low A on your keyboard now and hold it down with your left hand, and then play the same set of notes again in your right hand but starting on A this time, A B C D E F G; this is the characteristic darker sound of A Minor.

Notice that the same exact notes are used in both of these examples but the root note is different and that makes all the difference. Looked at this way, C Major and A Minor are actually just two different modes of the same scale or set of notes.

3 Fist Style: You Can’t Beat My Byzantine Technique!

Now let’s listen to the track and find the pitches Datsik uses to make the bassline. Actually in this track, the bassline riff is first heard at the very beginning, first played on an East Asian-sounding sampled string instrument that sounds like it was taken from the set of the same kung fu movie Datsik got his hilarious sampled dialogue from. After this riff is repeated a few times and then doubled with a Dr. Dre-style high-pitched synth lead, the drop comes and we hear the same notes played by a combination of raucous bass synth sounds. Listen to the track below and let it play through from the beginning until you hear the bassline a few times at least:

If we play along with the main bass riff on a MIDI controller and record the notes, we will find that it looks something like this:

Where Loefah used only a single pitch to make the bassline for “Root,” “3 Fist Style” uses a set of pitches that comprise the so-called double harmonic major or “Byzantine” scale mentioned earlier. Rearranging the notes here in order from lowest to highest, the pitches are G G# B C D D# F#. I hear the root here as G; this is the lowest note of the phrase, and each bar of this phrase begins on G, goes up, and then returns back down to where it began.

As you can see, this scale has a somewhat different structure than the more common major and minor scales we just looked at. What is the pattern of intervals here?

G – half step – G# – minor third (three half steps) – B – half step – C – whole step – D – half step – D# – minor third – F#

Notice that in addition to whole and half steps, this scale also has two larger intervals, the minor third (the same as three half-steps) between C# and E and between G# and B.

This is relatively common in dubstep; we can often hear dubstep basslines and other musical elements based on diminished, harmonic minor, or other scales with unusual intervals such as the “Byzantine” scale used here. Although styles, fashions and subgenres come and go, dubstep as a whole has always been a rather unsettling and disturbing music genre; dubstep basslines often reflect this by avoiding simple major or minor scale lines and emphasizing dissonant intervals such as the tritone or the minor second.

What Was He Thinking?

Now, when we say that Datsik used the Byzantine scale to make this bassline, does that mean that he read about it in a book somewhere and decided to use it to make a dubstep track? Maybe he did or maybe he didn’t, actually we can’t really know how he made it unless we ask him! Maybe he was just playing around on the keyboard and came across this riff by accident, maybe he heard it in an old kung fu movie, but that’s not the point.

When we analyze music like this, we are not necessarily trying to figure out what was going on in the artist’s head when they made it — we’re trying to understand what they did, to find some pattern in it that we can make use of ourselves in our own tracks. The name “Byzantine scale” has been attached to this scale before but this name isn’t necessarily accurate, and it doesn’t matter. The important thing is learning that this set of notes makes this type of sound, and adding that to the storehouse of musical ideas you draw on when you make new tracks.

Now that you’ve learned about this scale, try making some basslines or melodies of your own while limiting yourself to using only these notes, or only a few of them. Exploring a new scale like this can really lead you to some new musical territories that you wouldn’t have come across otherwise…

Dubspot blogger/instructor John von Seggern has been producing and performing music with computers since his first DJ gigs in 1999 with his Hong Kong-based group Digital Cutup Lounge. Since then he has played techno at massive underground parties in China, remixed major Western pop artists for the Indian music market (and vice versa), designed orchestral electronic sounds and effects for the Pixar film Wall-E, and presented his anthropological research on music technology at academic conferences. He has authored two instructional books about computer music production and performance as well as the manual for Native Instruments’ popular software synthesizer Massive.

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