Case Study 2: The Power of the Bassline to Establish Style

Real Ultimate Power from the Bass!

Real Ultimate Power from the Bass!

If you were to imagine the simplest arrangement possible for an accompaniment to a soloist, what would you think of?  Well, let’s say it’s one other person — that’s simple.  What would they sing?  Harmony?  Backup vocals?  Some combination of all of these?  What if you lived in a world such as ours where chords rule the harmonic day?  Probably you’d do what my inclination is:  Write a bassline (You might have guessed this based on the article’s title as well.  If so, you are an outside-the-box thinker).

Basslines are tricky buggers to write successfully, and it’s particularly difficult to understand how to do it well unless you have personally sung bass before — something that Tenors, Altos, and Sopranos seldom get the opportunity to try.  There are ways around this of course, and I do suggest people of all voice parts to try singing along to the basslines of songs they hear in any octave that is comfortable.  After trying it a bit, take a listen to some of the following examples of naked basslines and appreciate different styles they can invoke.

And invoke they do — the bass part is particularly powerful because it tends to be much lower than the soloist, and is able to emerge from the texture as an independent part.  Its role as an outer voice makes it much easier to hear than others.  Because of its prominence, it has quite a bit of potential to rule the day when it comes to determining the style of the arrangement, and establishing the foundation for what the other parts will sing.  For this reason, I often will arrange the bass part first — or at least think of the uppervoices in terms of how they will interact with the bass.

Note for Women’s Groups: On the whole, this bass-centric approach is still very valid for all-female groups; however, the prominence of the Alto II part is lessened significantly because of how closely it is stacked with the other voices.  Although you will find yourself using independent basslines with frequency, women’s groups will find themselves more frequently arranging the Alto IIs homophonically (with the same rhythm) as some other parts.

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”

This is a great and straightfoward song that has plenty to work with and a recording that’s easy to work with.  I’ll let Marvin sing the solo, and supplement him, showing different possible basslines and how they imply different genres and styles.  First, take a listen to the original recording, with the full arrangement:

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Now one way to arrange this tune would be to transcribe everything that’s going on in this recording.  This is painstaking and difficult, but can be very rewarding, especially if you’re ultimately attempting a studio-recorded recreation.  On the other hand, the instrumental arrangement from the original is not generally as intuitive for voices.  What follows are some examples of boilerplate-style on-the-fly arrangements in different styles, designed to showcase the bass as the key component in setting up the sound of the arrangement.

First, just Marvin and I will be singing; he on lead and myself on bass.  The basslines I use are rather generic for a certain style; after many years of singing basslines along to songs, anybody can develop the ability to lay these out… in their own octave!  After a verse of the bassline establishing the style, an example of what the rest of the block might do is sung in two parts for the chorus.  The upper voices are all made up to fit along with the bassline; the first of the addon parts was improvised and the second was harmonized and recorded to match.

You can do this too!  It’s not hard to just jam out and sing whatever comes to mind; the biggest barrier is usually mental.  Here’s a recording of Marvin’s solo a cappella track:

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Sing along, make something up — improvise and have fun.  Don’t worry about being out of tune, either!  I am always out of tune when singing these things, and I hope you don’t mind.  Here’s some examples of what you can do:

Swing/Walking Bassline

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It is hard to make Marvin Gaye sound like he’s swinging his eighth notes in this recording, but somehow it works (I shifted his track to come in just a few milliseconds later, making him seem to “lay back” more).  The walking bassline is a tough one to learn to do well, and I am certainly not quite there yet.  But the idea is to connect root notes with either scales or arpeggios.  Then, the uppervoices come in with some scat-sounding syllables.  Lots of offbeats and syncopation in the upper voices.

The Cowpokey Polka

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The bassline pops between the 1 and 5 of the chord to make this texture work.  Listen to how percussively you can write a bassline: its consonants can sound like drums.  Even if the uppervoices are only using long sustained notes, the bassline drives the action straight ahead and gives it all the character it needs.  Then listen for the uppervoices switching to offbeats — it’s a different spin on the bassline, but both ideas work well.

Bossa Nova

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This style of music was a huge hit from the mid 50s through the mid 60s; it’s a Brazilian style that is distinctly American as well.  Girl From Ipanema this is not, but it has the same feel.  Again, the bassline determines the way it will go, and the uppervoices have no choice but to match the latin rhythm.  Notice the offbeat attacks in the block, and also the voicing that includes the m7 of the chord: the minor seven chord is very characteristic of bossa nova.

Samba/Fast Salsa Style

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This bassline is tough to make happen, especially with a group that’s not too familiar with latin styles — every “downbeat” is played/sung in the bass half a beat early (the & of 4)!  The upper voices in this do two things:  First, they act like trumpets (again accenting the & of 4), then they move on to a syncopated figure that might be saxophones or guitars — but really, they’re just voices.  These two “roles” are alternated and the contrast is emphasized by different syllables and dynamics.

Original Style, Singing Lyrics (Rockapella)

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This is still rather bossa nova-y, in part because the original song sounds that way to my ear, and in part because I recorded this one right after singing the bossa nova version.  In any case, here you have it: a bassline that manages to simultaneously be a bass instrument and sing lyrics in harmony with the soloist.  Then, the backups sing in Rockapellian style, complete with a glissando that makes for a nifty effect unique to voices and trombones.

Conclusionary Caveats

Basslines are the key to establishing style; if you wish, you could start there first and add other parts in on top.  However, this might lock you into a Soloist/Bassline/Block texture, so be wary of overusing this technique.  Also, singing and improvising is a great way to arrange quickly, but you’ll often be stuck to certain general styles that might all sound the same.  Never be afraid to go back to the original.

That said, give this procedure a try, and figure out how it might work for you.  It’s a very organic way of approaching a piece!

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YackBack

I love this Yuri. Well said!

#1 
Written By Marianne Cheng on December 23rd, 2008 @ 3:07 am

Hi Yuri,
You know, this approach of getting the melody-bass duet in place before filling in the backing harmonies is very Baroque. My orchestration lecturer at university used to refer to the woodwind’s role in later (18/19-century) textures as ‘continuo harmonies’ for precisely this reason! And I think it’s key not only to defining style (which you illustrate very nicely here), but the whole structural integrity of the arrangement. If the melody-bass duet stands on its own, the fill has something to hang on – if it doesn’t, nothing else you add is ever going to sound too hot.

liz x

#2 
Written By liz garnett on January 4th, 2009 @ 6:22 am

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