Creating a Melody from the Bass Line

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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A song works best when all elements work together. No lyric, chord progression, or melody exist in a vacuum; they are like partners that complement each other. That means that all good songs are better than the sum of their parts. Your job is to find ways to relate one element to the other. One way to make sure your melody works well: have it work in tandem with your bass line.

This method of composition implies that you’ve come up with a chord progression that you like, because it’s the chords that will give you that bass line. So let’s use this progression as one for our chorus:

C  F  C  F  Dm  G  Am  G  C

Assuming that you use all the chords in root position, you’ve got a chord progression that works well, comprised mainly of strong root movements. But for this technique we want to create a bass line that, in a certain way, actually emulates a melody. So to do that, you’ll want to invert some of those chords, which will smooth out that jumpy bass a little:

C  F  C/E  F  Dm  G/B  Am  G/B  C

You’ve now got a bass line that uses the following notes: C F E F D B A B C. It’s a nice shape to use, because it moves upward at first, then descends before rising again to the tonic (key) note.

To create a melody that goes with this, try using contrary motion: as your bass line moves in one direction, try to move your melody in an opposite direction, while still conforming to the notes suggested by the chord progression. This contrary motion may not work for each and every bass note, but here is one sample melody that works as a nice partner to that bass line:

G F G A A G E D C

That’s only one possibility; there are many others. In this case, as the bass line moves up at the beginning, the melody descends. Then as the bass line descends, the melody in general moves higher.

This kind of contrary motion creates a nice musical shape. Listeners won’t necessarily be aware that there is this kind of symmetry being created between the melody and bass, but creating a relationship in this manner creates a balance and an evenness of proportions that really work.

As with all music, you’ll want to create the melody with the lyric in mind, ensuring that words that carry the most emotional meaning get prominent placement in your melody.
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Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books get you writing the kind of songs that people will want to listen to. Click here to discover the songwriter within you!

Posted in Chord Progressions, Melody and tagged , , , , , .

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: May 2019 Monthly Assignment | Pittsburgh Songwriters Circle

  2. Great tips, Gary. I usually create the melody, and then adjust the bassline upward and downwards with some chords of the melody. It works great for me. Anyways, thanks a lot for sharing this informative post.

  3. HI. The changes in the chords of both the bassline & melody are changing within the circles of fifth. Can u please explain more ways in which the chords that form my melodies can transpose or modulates in high tension as its moves from the ist bar to the 4th bar. Thanks.

  4. Just to answer a few of the questions above:

    A couple of songs that use this melody-direction-contrary-to-bass would be the refrain from “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon & Garfunkel) and “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago (Robert Lamm).

    Regarding what intervals should be avoided between bass and melody, think beat-to-beat. On each beat, you’ll likely want the interval to be a non-dissonant one: a 3rd, 5th or 6th. Between beats, dissonances can be easily integrated because they’re likely acting as passing tones. As in all things with songwriting, your ears should be your guide. If you like what you’re hearing, it’s good.

    With this technique, though you are constructing a melody that moves in a generally opposite direction to the bass, your melody choices will come from the *chord* of the moment. And not every note will be able to move contrary to the bass.

    Later today, I’ll try to find time to post an example in notation of how this might work.

    -Gary

  5. Gary,

    Another great post! What interval relationships between bass and melody should generally be avoided – and how?

    For example, if the chord is Am/E (bass on E), your choice is to have the melody on the bass note (E), the fourth of the bass note (A), or the sharp five of the bass note (C). None of those seem to be ideal.

  6. Cool tip!

    I agreed with eric. would be nice a visual or sound exemple because we got the idea but dont know how apply that. =)

    ps ¿where you get all thats ideas? you rlz gary!

  7. Just dashing to a class, and will give your questions more thought, but you might want to consider this: The first notes of the “Start Spangled Banner” work mostly in contrary motion to the bass, and is a great example of how the contrary motion between melody and bass works.

    And keep in mind that this is only one possible way of many ways to construct a melody, and didn’t want to give the impression that it’s superior to other methods. But if you’re stuck for a good melody, considering the bass line in this way can be helpful.

  8. Awesome post Gary,
    So you did the melody,a piano progression and a bassline, cool.
    If you want to compose for guitar,pads or any 3 or 5 more instruments, what would be the best way for doing that.
    Using 3rds/5ths away, but following same progression but using a diferent instrument? What else?
    I was wondering if you could post an example using this composition you already did and some songs that is already is out there.
    Usually all the books about music theory is about melody and harmony, doesn’t say much about composing with more instruments and how they will “talk to eachother” to create a more complex harmony.
    What about a piano playing a Cmaj (C-E-G) chord and a Strings playing B-D-A(an octave higher than the piano). Together they will form a Cmaj13 chord, is that the only way to go? What other, what would be a more jazzy approach to this?
    Thanks.

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