Using Bass Lines to Craft a Better Song Melody

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Bill Withers - Lean On MeRecently I wrote about the benefits that come from writing a melody first, and then creating a chord progression to harmonize it. In that post, I mentioned that one of the dangers of chords-first writing is that melodies can get neglected, or can have a bit of a random design if you’re not careful. But the chords-first method of writing can work, if you’re careful about it. You need to be sure that even though you’ve concentrated on getting a chord progression that you like, that you keep your eye on the melody you create for it. One way to do that is to look at the bass line, and use that line to help create a melody.

Depending on the style of musical performance, bass lines may necessarily be somewhat static. But in any song that uses a chord progression, each change of chord usually results in a change of bass note. Some bassists become experts in creating beautiful lines that almost make you forget that they’re providing a harmonic foundation. The so-called “walking bass,” prevalent in jazz, is a good example.

So in a sense, every song has at least two lines that move: the melody line and the bass line. Here some observations and bits of advice for considering who those two lines should interact. These observations are ideas and suggestions, not rules.

1) Avoid excessive parallel motion, especially 5ths and 8ves. Parallel motion means that both the melody and bass line are moving in the same direction, by the same interval. This tends to compromise the musical independence of the two lines. In particular, because 5ths and 8ves are what are known as “bare intervals” (i.e., they produce a rather stark, hollow sound), parallel 5ths and 8ves between melody and bass may produce undesirable results.

Having said that, there are songs that make good use of the parallel motion between bass and melody. A good example is Bill Withers’ classic “Lean On Me“, which features parallel 8ves between melody and bass, as well as parallel 5ths in the piano part. But it’s used as an effect: the parallel motion is in fact a powerful hook that’s helped to make the song a staple on Classic radio stations, and got it a #205 placement on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

2) Look for ways to move your melody in the opposite direction of your bass. This kind of contrary motion creates beautiful independence and offers a pleasant sense of counterpoint between bass and melody. The two lines don’t need to move by the same intervals in opposite directions. For example, Chicago’s early hit “Questions 67 & 68” features this contrary motion in its opening line.

3) A moving bass line (i.e., quickly changing chords) can allow for a more static melody line. These days, melodic construction in pop songs seems to be allowing for a lot more “static motion” – melodies that sit on one note. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is an example of this, as well as parts of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite“.

4) Avoid melodic leaps that move in the same direction as bass leaps. This accentuates the lack of independence of the two lines. If you do use this effect, and you like it, try following it with melody and bass lines moving by step.

As I say, these certainly aren’t rules, only cautionary mentions. The reason I point them out at all is because each of the 4 effects tend to diminish the sense of self-determination of the melody. Parallel motion, excessive similar motion, and partnered leaps between melody and bass have the negative effect of making the melody appear to be dependent on the bass.

By incorporating a good mix of contrary and similar motion, you give your melodies a greater sense of freedom and shape, and make chords-first writing work better.

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