To Make a Melody Work, Think About the Bass Line

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.


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Most songwriters can describe the necessary components of a good melody. A melody needs to be memorable, and needs to have an interesting and unique shape. Some (not all) know that a chorus melody works best if it resides a little higher in pitch than the verse melody. And many know that a good melody needs a climactic point, a point of energetic focus.

But there is another aspect to good melody writing that few know, but can result in dynamite melodies that really work: compare the direction of the melody with the direction of the bass line. Here’s what I mean by that.

We never usually think about the bass line as having any sort of connection to a melody, but many bass lines operate like melodies: they’ve got contour, and they move up and down similarly to a melodic line. In a sense, every melody operates in tandem with its accompanying bass line.

There are four ways in which these two lines can move in relation to each other:

  1. In parallel motion (i.e., the same direction by the same intervals.)
  2. In similar motion (the same direction, but by different intervals.
  3. In oblique motion (i.e., one line moves to a different note while the other one holds the same note.)
  4. In contrary motion (i.e., both lines move in opposite directions)

If you find that your bass is moving upward like this: C D E F… and your melody is also moving up like this: G A B C… your melody and bass are in parallel motion, four notes in a row.

Melodies work best when they exhibit a mixture of all four types of motion with respect to the bass.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid using too many of the same type of motion listed above, more than two or three times. By ensuring that your melody and bass work together for a beat or two, then contrary, then similar, etc., you ensure that your melody offers a satisfying feeling of independence.

So what do you do if you find that your melody and bass are always moving in the same direction all the time? Try using some inverted chords (i.e., put a  note other than the root of the chord in the bass). You might even want to consider altering your melody.

Once your song is complete, try singing it through with just the bass player, and see if you can identify any problem spots.


See Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books here.

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