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It may not occur to you as a songwriter to think all that much about how your melody line compares with your bass line. We tend to think of those two elements as being separate entities, with not much in common. But in fact, how a melody interacts with a bass line will have considerable effect on your song’s vibe. There are four ways those two lines can interrelate. They can move by contrary motion (i.e., in opposite directions); by similar motion (both lines moving in the same direction, but by different intervals); by parallel motion (both lines moving by the same interval in the same direction); and by oblique motion (one line – usually the bass – sits on the same note while the other moves up or down.)
Ideally, you want to have the relationship between your melody and bass lines exhibit a mix of all four ways as it proceeds. But in this post, I want to talk about a particular kind of power you can get by writing a melody that matches, note-for-note, the bass line.
Two examples of this that come to mind is Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love“, from their 1967 “Disraeli Gears” album. And a more recent example: Finger Eleven’s “Paralyzer“, from their 2007 album “Them vs. You vs. Me”.
In “Sunshine of Your Love”, it’s the opening lines where the melody matches, mainly note-for-note, the guitar/bass figure. In “Paralyzer”, it’s the first lines of the chorus, where the melody starts on the tonic note, leaping down to the 4th note of the key.
So if we usually think of ideal melodies as combining the four different ways they can move with respect to the bass, what’s the overall effect of a melody that doesn’t just move in parallel to the bass, but uses the very same note names?
The end result is a power boost. In a way, it’s an orchestrational effect that’s been used for many years. Melodies that copy bass lines tend to make listeners sit up and take notice of the lyric. Two lines moving together this way generate power and grab attention.
If you’re looking for this kind of effect in your own songs, there are two ways to do it:
- Just as in “Sunshine of Your Love”, create a single-line bass line (no chordal accompaniment) that can also serve as a catchy melody.
- Just as in “Paralyzer”, create a chord progression that uses a bass line that could also serve as a melody once it’s transposed upward by a couple of octaves.
A couple of final tips: This melody/bass interaction doesn’t need to go on for a long period of time. A few bars is usually all that’s necessary. And secondly, as usual, let your ears be your guide. Melody and bass in parallel motion doesn’t always give you the desired effect, so experiment carefully.
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