Adding Bass Lines

If you play an instrument that can sound multiple pitches at the same time and you’re trying to play back music with multiple simultaneous lines, the next thing to add is usually the bass/lowest part. As we discussed in the chapter on attention, “Of all the non-melody lines we could listen to, bass lines may be both the most important and the most well-defined.” Since they are often so prominent and associated with chord progressions, adding the bass can make your playback sound much fuller and more like the original.

People who play single-line instruments can still take on the challenge of playing back bass lines, too, even though they can’t play the melody and the bass line simultaneously. Being able to play both back, even separately, helps us hear each of them in a fuller context. And following different lines within the texture helps us develop our attentional focus.

In a way, bass-line playback is the same as playing back melodies. As long as you can follow the line and figure out its scale degrees and rhythms, you can just figure it out the same as a melody. Indeed, for some people, it’s just that easy. If that’s you, awesome.

There are plenty of people, however, who find that first part—”as long as you can follow the line and figure out its scale degrees and rhythms”—challenging when applied to bass lines, in a way that melodies are not. This is probably for two main reasons.

First, evidence suggests that most people’s attention is drawn first to the highest voice sounding, so we need to practice directing our attentional focus to a different part of the texture. In the chapter on attention, we worked on directing our attention to the bass through a series of practice exercises. You may wish to return to those now.

Second, we are best at paying attention to familiar objects, so the more acquaintance we have with the common patterns associated with bass lines, the easier it will be to follow them.


Activity: Learn to be a bass

Goal: Internalize common bass-line patterns in order to identify them in heard music

Before you start: Choose to use your voice or other instrument, as you wish.

Instructions: Several common bass lines are described below. Play or sing these in several different keys in order to internalize them. If you sing, sing on solfège syllables to help direct your attention to how they relate to the key. The more these patterns are internalized, the more success you will have in following these bass lines.

  • scale degrees 1-4-5-5-1/do-fa-sol-sol-do; if you go up from scale degrees 1-5/do-sol, consider dropping the octave on the second scale degree 5/sol
  • scale degrees 1-5-6-4/do-sol-la-fa in a major key
  • starting on a relatively high pitch and going down for the next two pitches, scale degrees 1-6-4-5-1/do-la-fa-sol-do in a major key and do-le-fa-sol-do in a minor key
  • the “circle of fifths”/”circle of fourths”: scale degrees 1-4-7-3-6-2-5-1/do-fa-ti-mi-la-re-sol-do in a major key and do-fa-te-me-le-re-sol-do in a minor key


Activity: Playing back bass lines

Goal: Listen for bass lines and replicate them

Before you Start: A non-voice instrument is recommended; voice will also work.

Instructions: Listen to the songs in the playlist below. For each, listen to the first 1–2 phrases, and try to play back the bass line on your instrument. It may be helpful to try to sing the bass line first. It’s fine to repeat the phrases as necessary to learn them, but make sure you are practicing your memory skills.


Suggest a song for this playlist!


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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