From Bach to the Beatles, some of the most beautiful music of all time has employed a descending bass line. By this, I don’t mean just that the notes of the bass go down but that the bass descends step by step, often while the basic chord stays the same.
This makes most sense when you hear an example, in this case one of the most commercially successful singles of all time, having sold more than 10 million copies and having been covered by more than 1000 artists. Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale employs a bass line that descends step by step in a similar way to numerous classical pieces, including Bach’s Air on a G string.
Procul Harem: A Whiter Shade of Pale
|Lyrics||– We||skipped the light fan-||dango||– and turned||cartwheels on the||floor|
A descending bass line, particularly when coupled with melancholy lyrics is often described as the lament bass, which Dale McGowan describes as ‘like a silk thread tying the chords together, creating centuries of smooth, gorgeous harmony’.
The lament bass provides the songwriter and instrumental composer with the potential to create beautiful music with universal appeal. Other musician’s agree:
There’s just something about a good descending bassline that hits you right in the soul. No other songs have moved me to tears more often than a simple chord melody with a soulful descending bassline alongside it.Couloirman
There are two main forms that the lament bass can take. The first is diatonic – the bass descends step by step down the scale. A Whiter Shade of Pale is an example, moving down the C major scale from C to B, A, G, F, E, D and back to C.
Here are some more classic examples:
Diatonic descents (scale steps)
The Beatles: Dear Prudence
|Lyrics||Dear||Prudence||won’t you come out to …|
In this piece the chord stays on D major as the bass descends from D to C, B and then Bb.
Simon and Garfunkel: America
|Lyrics||Let us be||lovers we’ll||marry our||fortunes to-||-gether||I’ve got some||real estate||here in my bag|
Les Miserables: I Dreamed a Dream
|Lyrics||– I dreamed a||dream in times gone||by||– When hope was||high and life worth||living|
The second type of lament bass is chromatic – the bass descends semi-tone by semi-tone. Again, here are some examples:
Chromatic descents (half steps)
David Bowie: Life on Mars
|Lyrics||– It’s a||god-awful small off-||-air to the||girl with the mousy||hair but her||mummy is yelling||‘no’ and her||daddy …|
This song is packed with chromatic ascents as well as descents. It’s a really clever piece of writing.
Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven
|Lyrics||There’s a||lady who’s||sure all that||glitters is||gold …|
|Chords||Am||Am9/G#||Am7||D||Fmaj7 G Am etc.|
This is the track that every guitarist either loves or hates. Unlike all the examples so far, this one is in a minor key.
Radiohead: Exit Music For A Film
And one final example, again in a minor key:
|Lyrics||Wake from your||sleep, the||drying of your||tears, to-||– day we es-||-cape, we es-||– cape|
What next for the lament bass?
Musical ideas do not get ‘used up’ because they have been successfully applied over centuries. There is really no limit to the way that melodies can be fashioned to realise the inherent beauty of a descending bass line.
The seven examples provides here do not sound like a simple re-working of an over-used idea. In fact, they could not be more different.
One thing is for certain. There will be many more equally wonderful examples to follow in years to come.