Transcribing Bass Lines

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, it is often useful to transcribe them alongside a melody to get a fuller picture of what’s going on in a piece of music.

In a way, bass-line transcription is the same as melodic transcription. As long as you can follow the line and figure out its scale degrees and rhythms, you can just notate it 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.

Finally, think about what your goal is in transcribing the bass. If it’s to figure out the bass line in detail in order (for example) to play it yourself, you’ll want to get whatever level of detail you can. But if you are using it as a tool to figure out the chord progression, you may not need every detail of the bass line in order to get most of the helpful information.


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 degree 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: Transcribe bass lines

Goal: Follow and notate bass lines in heard music

Before you start: You’ll need some way to write things down.

Instructions: Transcribe the bass lines of the first 1–2 phrases of each song in the playlist below. If you have not already worked with these songs in a previous section, make sure to start by identifying the key and meter.


Suggest a song for this playlist!


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book