The Inspiring Impact of the Rising Bass Line

Missy HigginsLately I’ve been examining the effect that chord choice, tempo and melodic shape can have on lyrical meaning and mood. There’s another song attribute that can affect mood: the direction of the bass line. In particular, I want to look at the power of the rising bass line, because it can give your songs a compelling shot of power and  authority, especially useful in anthems and other such message-laden song forms. [Continue reading below..]

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To the listener, a rising bass line can often interpreted as mounting confidence, self-assuredness and personal strength. But sometimes, such progressions that use rising bass lines tend to be tinged with a sense of melancholy as well as emotional exhaustion. A good example might be Missy Higgins’ “Any Day Now” from her 2004 debut album “The Sound of White”:

Eb  Fm7  Eb/G  Ab

It’s a great progression to use with the kind of lyrics she sets. After “How long, how long, how long…” she sets

Say you’ve kept some fire aside to set light to me some surprising night./
And say you’ve locked some fire away to set light to me some surprising day…”

The rising bass line adds nuance to the lyric,  amplifying the qualities of strength and confidence. And that’s the power of the rising bass line. If you want your audience to hear something more, or if you want to nudge the listener in a certain psychological direction, the bass line can act in almost an unnoticeable agent of power.

The great thing is that there are lots of harmonic variations that can change a rising bass line’s implications. Check out the following (Try two beats per chord; chords in square brackets should get one beat each):

1) D  Em7  D/F#  G  A  Bm  A/C#  D
The typical rising bass line, it’s used to enhance a variety of moods. But in general, you’ll find this kind of rising bass line (whose chords are all diatonic choices from the given key) is the kind that accompany lyrics that turn from melancholy/sad to confident/happy.

2) D  C/E  F  [Gsus  G] [Asus  A]  Bb  C  D
D  A/E  F# Eb/G  A  G/B  C  D

You can see that by using non-diatonic chords (i.e., chords that don’t naturally exist in D major, such as F, Bb and C), you can put a darker edge on the harmonic quality. The harmonic direction, especially in the second example above, can be a bit unpredictable but useful.

Rising bass lines don’t need to be complete octaves:

3) D  Em  D/F#  [C/G  G]  C  Dm  C/E  F
This one offers an interesting way to move into a new key, modulating from D major to F major, by replicating a 4-note rising figure a tone lower.

Rising bass lines can move chromatically while staying firmly rooted in the original key, through the use of so-called secondary dominant chords:

4) D  B7/D#  Em  C#/E#  F#m  G  E/G#  A  D
You can create this kind of progression easily in any key, starting on any note. As you can see, bass notes with an accidental (the D#, for example), should be thought of as the 3rd note of a major chord.

The rising bass line has the advantage of working in the background in a rather unobtrusive way to add meaning to your song lyric. Used in conjunction with basic diatonic chords, they offer a sense of uplifting freedom. Used with non-diatonic chord choices, they add a feeling of power and strength.

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