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Bottoms Up - Composing Bass-Lines

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

I'm all arpeggiator'd out!

Retrowave music (my area/style of work/output) takes its influence from electronic music of the (late) 1970s and 1980s. At this time in music-technological history, there was the relatively new innovation of Step-Sequencers or Arpeggiators, either incorporated into synthesisers or as stand alone products. Step-Sequencers and Arpeggiators enabled the player to simply hold a note and have it play repeatedly, in an Ostinato fashion. Furthermore, a combination of notes could be held and the notes would repeatedly play sequentially (as an Arpeggio; hence the name).

Being a new technology (and therefore a new sound), they quickly became very popular, with many bands and artists using them extensively. Furthermore, they were often put to use, creating rhythmic and/or pulsating bass-lines. Their pulsating, rhythmic nature meant they well suited disco (for example, I Feel Love by Donna Summer), but later became commonplace in multiple areas of Pop (for example Blue Monday by New Order and Fade To Grey by Visage).

Whilst sequenced/arpeggiator bass-lines have remained commonplace in electronic music, they've made an especially notable resurgence in the Retrowave genre, due to the way in which Retrowave takes so many stylistic cues from electronic music of the 1980s.

As a Retrowave artist, I have (of course) utilised arpeggiator bass-line techniques in the past, however I confess to having grown weary of them. By their very nature they have the potential to be repetitive. This isn't a drawback per se as it's very much what they're designed for, and repetition is very appropriate in certain genres and applications. Furthermore, I still enjoy hearing other people use them; but for my own music, I'm rarely finding them creatively satisfying (anymore). In other words, I'm all arpeggiator'd out!

Looking to Funk

Members of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, circa 1973-75

I've long been a fan of 1970s and 1980s Funk. For me, Funk is as intrinsic to the 1980s as Synthpop or the emergence of Hip-Hop. Whilst Funk can be traced back as far as the late 1960s, it came of age in the 1970s and continued to make strides and innovations throughout the 1980s.

Funk was a significant influencer on Disco of the 1970s, and both the musicality and instrumentation of Funk and Disco were major influences on some of the most iconic records of the 1980s. There are a lot of blurred lines (stylistically speaking) between Funk and Disco, and as their combined influence grew, they brought Soul, RnB and even Jazz into their stylistic sphere. This resulted in an explosion of Funk derived musical stylings throughout popular music across the first half of the 1980s, influencing mainstream popular music and high profile artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna (with whom the 1980s are synonymous).

Furthermore, sampling Funk records formed the backbone of the emerging rap scene of the early 1980s, and as far as 20th Century musical movements go, they don't get much bigger than Rap.

What's so Different About Funk Bass-lines?

Famous Funk Bassist Bootsy Collins

Funk doesn't typically make use of arpeggiator bass-lines, instead it takes cues from Jazz, using the bass in a multifaceted way; supporting rhythm with both down-beat emphasis and off-beat syncopation; creating counter-melodic and harmonic interest and tension; sometimes leading melodic phrases.

In Funk (not exclusively of course, as other genres do this too), the bass often acts independently of the chordal harmonic content. The bass does not simply underpin the root note of the chord being played (as it might do in mainstream Pop or Rock), but rather the bass-line moves around scales, rhythmically in sync with the drums.

For example, in Pop/Rock, the bass typically works to underpin the chord and cement the harmonic content. For example, a bar of an E chord in Pop/Rock will be supported by a bar of E in the bass. However, in Funk, I often feel as though the bass-line is composed first as a moving, melodic element and that chords are chosen to sit loosely atop the bass-line in a broader, less specific sense; there's harmonic correlation, but it's not necessarily concrete and resolute.

The result of this (in Funk) is that of a harmonic texture that's not resolutely anchored to a harmonic root, thus creating an impression of lift or lightness as the harmonic information of the music isn't intrinsically tied to the bass note. It also contributes to Funk's tension by keeping focus on the rhythmical groove (as opposed to the harmonic content - despite the harmonic content often being very rich and sophisticated).

D Dorian Scale

For example, imagine we have a Funk bass-line grooving on the D Dorian scale (pictured on the right), equally dividing its emphasis between the root of D and the fourth of G. All the while the bass-line is grooving on this scale between D and G; the band, instead of mirroring this emphasis with a Dm and G chord, they might play something like an F∆7 chord.

F Major 7 Chord

F∆7 (pictured to the right) is a harmonic extension of D Minor and therefore sits well in the key of D Dorian. When the bass places emphasis on the D, an F∆7 played over the top actually creates a Dm7 (add9), creating lightness and lift with a hint of melancholy. When the bass places emphasis on the G, an F∆7 harmonically creates a (sort of) G7 (7, 9, 11, 13), however it's not clear cut as we're not playing the fundamental notes of the G chord; G, B and D. Most lead sheets would score it as an F∆7/G. Either way, neither instances contain strong resolve; an example of one way in which Funk achieves the aforementioned lift and tension in its harmonic content, aided by rhythmical motion in the bass-line.

To summarise, we have large, harmonically rich chords that are somewhat (or entirely) detached from their root notes. This technique yields a distinctive sound and is unlike more conventional pop music where the bass and the mid-range chords are intrinsically linked to harmonically direct and focussed chord voicing. This technique ultimately leaves the music open to interpretation, allowing the listener to decide how it makes them feel, as opposed to being overtly one emotion (as is common in Pop music). It's sort of like the musical equivalent of Rubin's Vase; it can be considered as either a vase or two faces, and both interpretations are correct; there's no wrong answer.

And The Beat Goes On - Step Sequenced Vs. Funk

Keeping all of this in mind alongside the notion of Arpeggiated/Step-Sequenced bass-lines, let's consider the chorus of And The Beat Goes On by The Whispers (1979). The chords in the chorus can be broken down into a repeating 2-bar pattern like so:

|Bm7 / A / |F♯m7 / G∆7 / A | and repeat...

If this were mainstream Pop of the time we might perhaps have deployed an Arpeggiated/Step-Sequenced bass-line (as per the trend), or perhaps just played bass notes to mirror the B, A, F♯, G and A respectively (as per more standard Pop Music arrangement techniques). However this record is a halfway-house between Funk and Disco and the bass-line is therefore much more complex. Let's look at a practical example.

Below is a two-bar passage of MIDI Piano-Roll for the chorus of And The Beat Goes On. The chords are labelled along the top (in accordance with when they're played). The MIDI bass-line I've drawn would be a typical example of what we could expect from an Arpeggiated/Step-Sequenced bass-line of 8th notes (or quavers).

This is rhythmically strong as both the down-beat and the syncopated 1/2 notes (quavers) are present at all times. This could be considered "driving" or pulsating. It solidly anchors and underpins the harmonic content of the chords being played by other instruments in the arrangement. This sort of bass-line is very prevalent in Retrowave.

Let's look at what the original bass-line for And The Beat Goes On does:

I've recreated the original bass-line from the record in MIDI. If we count the notes, both 2-bar sections contain 16 notes. The Arpeggiated/Step-Sequenced bass-line has the notes evenly spaced, whereas the original bass-line makes greater use of space and accent; distributing notes with heightened syncopation and thus creating greater tension and release (than the Arpeggiated/Step-Sequenced bass-line above would make in this instance).

For example, after beat two of the first bar, the 16th-note (semiquaver) melodic run from the B Minor to the A (Major) chord starts a 16th beat-division after the second beat. This creates the impression of the bass-line snatching at the rhythm straight after the snare of beat two. It feels preemptive and adds a certain strut to the passage.

Furthermore, this phrase acts as a counter melody to the lead vocal (a role typically undertaken in many genres by instruments other than bass).

The second chord in the sequence plays on beat 3 of the bar and it appears (on listening) to be an A Major chord. However, it's a little ambiguous as the bass-line doesn't land on an A until a 16th after the chord is played. This use of syncopation is where things get very interesting as it triggers the listener on both a rhythmic and harmonic level.

On the 3rd beat (of the bar), the bass-line lands on F♯ which is the relative Minor note to the A Major chord being played by other instruments in the arrangement. Due to A Major and F♯Minor's relative harmonic relationship, an A Major chord can be played over an F♯ bass note without clash or dissonance. It simply becomes an F♯ Minor 7 chord (as opposed to A Major), which is much more melancholy in emotional colour compared to an A Major chord.

However, within the space of three-sixteenths (as shown in the above diagram) the bass-line modulates between F♯ and A creating some harmonic mystique. As mentioned above, F♯ and A are intrinsically linked by their harmonic relativity; therefore by having the bass-line interchange between F♯ (Minor) and A (Major), all the while a Major chord (A Major) is playing, creates tension due to uncertainty over whether or not beats three and four are in fact Major (A Major) or Minor (F♯ Minor7). Perhaps, like Rubin's Vase, it's both...?

The Subliminal Aspect

To delve even deeper into the subliminal harmonic aspects of this passage; we're in the key of B Minor, meaning B is the root (Tonic) and F♯ is the fifth note in the scale (Dominant). The Dominant note of a scale typically carries the second most harmonic weight (after the Tonic). This means when you hear the Dominant you really feel like the next chord should bring a sense of closure (i.e. you subliminally want the next chord to be the Tonic or at least it's relative counterpart).

The above-mentioned harmonic ambiguity is all centred around F♯, the Dominant of the key, which naturally comes with a yearning or desire to be followed with a sense of resolve (tension and release). In this instance (as discussed above), we're not 100% sure if we're actually on the Dominant F♯at the end of bar one (due to the bass-line's movement), yet bar two most definitely is the Dominant. The Dominant in this instance resolves to a G Major 7 after a beat and a half, just a semitone up from the F♯. This semitone step is a resolve of sorts, but is far from a resolve that would bring closure and instead further adds to the tension and intrigue in this two-bar passage of music.

I.e. this short passage of bass-line in bar one subliminally plants the expectation of resolve in bar two, meaning that when that resolve doesn't come, we're all the more emotionally moved by the subversive nature of this sequence underpinned by subtle misdirection from the bass-line.

The Devil's in the Detail

This harmonic slight-of-hand and syncopation all takes place within the blink of an eye, across little more than two beats worth of music, yet makes for compelling listening; providing emotional stimulus for the listener through the conflict and uncertainty of not truly knowing if what we're listening to is uplifting or melancholy, or somehow both (like Rubin's Vase). It's an understated trick, but surprisingly powerful nonetheless.

Composing from the Bottom Up

Okay, that all got rather wordy and technical. I hope you're still with me...

Whilst this was one example I plucked out of the air when considering what songs had interesting and sophisticated bass-lines, there are of course millions of other songs that could be examined in this way. What this song and many others like it do, I believe, is treat the bass like a lead instrument in that it adopts a primary role in determining where rhythmical and harmonic emphasis lies, whilst also offering counter points to other melodic parts. Whether you enjoy the exampled style of music or not, it's hard to overlook the impressive feat of using just one instrument within a band to such depth and impact.

Let's consider how we might be able to use the above discussion to inform and improve our own practice.

For a long time my composition method was to compose chord sequences and melodies first. bass-lines were usually an afterthought. However, after much time spent analytically listening to Funk, I began to consider bass-lines more like lead parts and in the last two years or so I've started using a composition process that I consider as the Bottom Up method; in so much as I start at the bottom of the frequency spectrum, composing bass-lines first before moving up the frequency spectrum to work on the middle registers, and finally top-line melodies. This method has taken my composing not only into new areas that I hadn't foreseen, but I believe it's generally improved my composition process and raised the quality of my writing.

If like me, you're a Retrowave artist who's all too familiar with using arpeggiated bass-lines, I'd strongly encourage you to sprinkle a little funk into your process and have a go at writing music from the bottom up, without arpeggiators (simply as a creative exercise, if nothing else).

How do I do it?

Using a basic drum loop as a backbone template, I establish a bass-line groove that includes syncopation similar to how the above example does.

If I'm struggling with getting things sounding syncopated and interesting, or if I'm feeling uninspired, I make a straight, Step-Sequenced style bass-line (see the top picture to the right). I then nudge notes about, a 16th at a time (or 24th if I really want things to swing and strut). This typically takes just a few seconds and usually yields positive results (see the bottom picture on the right).

(To illustrate just how quick this process can be, I put the pictured example together in about 90 seconds - and it actually sounds pretty groovy!)

With a bass-line in place, I experiment with different chord voicing to see what kind of emotional colours I can create (more on chord voicing in my next article). With a bass-line groove and chordal voicing established I often find it easier to give context to what I'm working on, and the moods and atmospheres start to fall in to place (even if they're ambiguous, they're enough to still work with). With a context more firmly established I find it easier to visualise where the song wants to go and therefore easier to compose lead melodic phrases as well as counter-melody parts.

Once some melodic phrases are established, I may return to the bass-line and tweak it in places to either further compliment, embellish or make space for the melodic lines. Either way, writing the bass-line first provides me with the necessary framework and foundation to kickstart the rest of the composition process.

One example of this method in practice would be the track Knock, Block & Roll (Level Theme 3) from a recent video game commission I completed. I used exactly this method; establishing a bass-line before tackling the rest of the track. The motion and movement of the bass-line throughout the song creates varied colour palettes in the harmonic content, especially noticeable on the chorus section.

To Conclude

Whilst I'm sure that what I've written about in this article is the sort of thing that many other people already do, I nevertheless I wanted to write about it as it's had such a positive impact on my work. Making a significant and conscious change to my creative process has enabled me to not only improve my craft but also provide me with another technique to help maintain creative inquiry; avoiding notions of writers block (along with understanding the creative cycles and self evaluation).

If composing Bottom Up works for me, I'm sure it can work for other people too. Have a go! You might find it doesn't quite sit with your style, however you won't know until you try; and who knows, you might just discover a new side to your own musical journey in the process; one that takes you on interesting and new pathways of composition that you hadn't anticipated.