Melody and Bass: They Need to Work Together

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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Singer with Electric BassIt is a very useful exercise to sing through your latest song, accompanying yourself with just the bass line. How melodies and bass lines interact is tremendously important. I’ve seen it happen that songwriters spend a lot of time trying to create vocal harmonies, but having no success because there’s an underlying problem with the outer voices. So here’s what that’s all about.

Even several hundred years ago, how melodies and bass lines intermingled was of great importance. J.S. Bach, for example, wrote a series of what he called “Two-Part Inventions” as a way of teaching his students how to have two lines work together. And for very important reasons, it’s vital to consider the bass line a kind of “alternate melody”, something that works in partnership with the real melody.

There are four ways that melody and bass can move in relation to each other:

  1. Contrary motion (for example, melody line moves up while bass line moves down.)
  2. Similar motion (both lines move in the same direction, but by different intervals; for example, the melody might rise by a whole tone, while the bass rises by a perfect 4th.)
  3. Parallel motion (both lines move by the same distance in the same direction; for example, both lines move up by a minor 3rd.)
  4. Oblique motion (one line stays on the same note while the other line moves up or down.)

In my opinion, you can get a bit obsessive about this, so I’d recommend only dissecting your melody and bass line if you hear that there’s a problem that you can’t put your finger on.

When you sing through your melody, accompanying yourself with just the bass line, you should be noticing a fairly even mixture of all four types of interaction, with probably a preponderance of oblique motion. This is because it’s common to have a bass note last for several beats while the melody is changing above it.

So what are the signs that something sounds a bit off with the melody and bass? The biggest problems come from the bass and melody moving in the same direction.

If your bass and melody both rise by the same interval (i.e., move by parallel motion), it can create a stark, “hollow” sound if the interval between the two lines is a 4th, 5th or octave. So unless you’re trying to create that hollow sound, you’ll want to avoid parallel 4ths, 5ths or octaves.

Thirds and 6ths are intervals we tend to think of as “sweet” sounding, with a natural warmth, so having parallel motion between melody and bass that features 3rds or 6ths will not cause problems.

Here are some examples (sound samples open in a new browser window) :

Melody and bass moving in parallel 5ths.

Melody and bass moving in parallel 3rds.

As you can hear, there’s a bareness to the parallel 5ths, so you’ll only want to use that kind of interaction if it’s the bare quality you’re looking for. But in my experience, the quality of sound that comes from parallel bare intervals causes problems especially when creating backing vocals.

So the general guideline here is that if you find that you’re hearing a hollow quality to your song, and  you can’t seem to put your finger on what’s causing it, it’s almost always attributable to how the bass and melody are interacting.

Try singing through your song slowly, and when you get to the problematic spot, make careful note of which notes are being sung, and compare them to the bass line. You’ll likely discover parallel 4ths, 5ths or octaves as being the culprit.

You’d be surprised how close your songs could be to being hit songs. Learn all the essential secrets of great songwriting by clicking here.

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  1. The concept of space and time is a mystery not only just in music but in all other art forms as well. Here we have touched upon the subject of space on how motions interact to one another. But lets not leave out the concept of time. Any line you do be it either bass, melodic or vocal, always leave s p a c e within those lines( l o n g notes, rhythmic space or rests, slow rhythms etc. So you leave out s p a c e for a much more greater arrey of arrangements in the future. Finally, I wii like to close this comment with a phrase ; The less you stir the less you have to quiet. This illustrates the importance of space in music. finally, i want to thank the owner of this page, who is the real teacher here not me. Well, Wish you all have a great day.

  2. I think I have finally stumbled upon something can get me that much closer to that professional arrangment I’m looking for. I did purchase “The Essentials To Songwriting” series E-books but I haven’t read through everything yet. But just these tips about ‘parallel’ and ‘contrary’ motion have hit a nerve with my music. I do tend to have that ‘hollowness’ in my music. Not only now do I know it’s not just my melody, it’s now the bass interacts and we’re not even talking about harmony yet.. So… I’m getting there and this small article is a big help and I can’t wait to get to the keyboard and see how things turn out.

      • Yes sir. Please keep the tips coming! It’s tough teaching yourself sometimes. When you don’t have thousands of dollars to spend per month to get the gritty details (and well kept secrets) you need, a lot of time goes by trying to figure things out. Fortunately, I think the hard part is behind me. I just need to dig in, listen, and make sure nothing is clashing. That’s basically it… But thanks to you and many others it is possible to start from nothing and become a professional music producer.

  3. Thanks for this, Gary, very interesting. I’m curious exactly what you mean by bass here–do you mean the bass notes of the main progression, or the “line” the bass is playing? In a rock context I can often come up with a good bass part, which might be a groove or a repeated riff, and it doesn’t always respect what the chords are doing. I think the bass in that sense and the melody work pretty independently.

    Or am I muddling together the song in the abstract with a particular arrangement of it? This is actually an common problem for me–I often have trouble really “hearing” a song until I’ve tracked out a pretty full version of it, and at that point it’s kind of “jelled” and is hard to change.

    I hope this question makes sense!

    • When talking about the bass line in this context, I’m talking about the line the bass is actually playing, which is often the same as the bass notes of the chord progression.

      I realize that often in pop music styles, the bass can be a relatively static entity, so it’s sometimes difficult to talk about it as being a “line.” But for this article, I was more talking about bass notes that move, forming what is, in a sense, a counter melody that works with the actual melody.

      Bass notes that are formed by a repeated riff are a different sort of bass line, one I really like because that kind of bass can be a solid structure around which a melody moves.

      • Right, that’s the sort of bass line I’m thinking of, which may be quite a bit “busier” than the overall harmonic movement. I guess I haven’t figured out how to integrate the two, so I just kind of wing it and hope it sounds good. I will keep pondering this.

        Thanks for the reply!

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