How to Write a
Memorable Bass Line
using modal ambiguity
Yes, your lead melody is important. But a great bass line has the power to make or break a section. Despite that fact, though, most producers approach their bass as an afterthought. Think about it. How many songs’ bass lines can you remember?
Almost all the bass lines we hear in the new releases each week are not really bass lines, they’re bass frequencies. If a producer merely plays each chord’s root note as their bass line, that’s not a melody (“line” is just an informal word for melody).
In order for it to be a bass line, it needs to be an actual melody. We’re obviously not saying that your bass should play a catchy melody like you’d want on the lead synth or vocals. But, it does need to contain the characteristics of a well-written melody, which will also make it memorable. And that’s a good test for yourself. The day after you’ve been writing, can you remember the bass line in your head?
A great example of a super memorable bass line, which doesn’t steal any attention away from the lead melody, can be found in the song “So Easy” by Norwegian electronic duo, Röyksopp. If you haven’t heard this song, have a quick listen, it’s the opening track on their brilliant album “Melody A.M.” from 2001. The song actually begins with both their bass line and lead melody playing, and while the lead is crazy catchy, the bass below is 100% memorable as well, without ever taking any attention away from the lead melody. It’s truly brilliant!
In this PDF you’ll learn the characteristics that make their bass line so memorable, as well as our 4-step method for writing memorable bass lines. But first… Tea!
Step 1. Half & Half
Set your tempo to 104 BPM and leave your time signature on 4|4. Then create an eight-bar loop on your bass track, and set your grid to 1/16 notes. When you analyse Röyksopp’s bass line, one of the most obvious characteristics you’ll notice is that half of it isn’t there, or so it seems. In other words, they use a ton of rests! So many, in fact, that their bass line consists of about half notes and half rests.
That’s a rather counterintuitive approach to bass, as it’s the foundation upon which the music is built. If half your foundation isn’t there, then surely you’re heading for trouble, right? Nope. Their clever use of rests ensures their bass line stands out because it’s different. But, as it’s not even there half the time, it’s not taking attention away from the lead melody. On that note, their lead is the opposite. It consists of longer connected notes, with no rests other than where they phrase it.
Okay let’s get to it! So you’re gonna start by writing a two-bar rhythm on C, the root note. But remember, you want about half of it to be rests. Also, all the notes should be short, so use a combination of 1/8 notes and 1/16 notes. And don’t be shy with the syncopation! If you play too many notes on the beat, it’s going to sound stiff and rigid. Those off-beat accents are gonna bring your bass line to life.
Two-bar rhythm on root note, C
When you’re happy with your lively two-bar rhythm, copy and paste it into bars three and four. Now, delete beat 4 in the fourth bar. You’ll find out why in Step 4.
Two-bar rhythm copied and pasted (highlighted) with beat 4 in fourth bar deleted
Then for variation, make one tiny change to a note towards the end of bar four.
Tiny rhythmic variation created at end of fourth bar (highlighted)
Step 2. Anchors & Arcs
The next thing you’ll notice about Röyksopp’s brilliant bass line is that it begins with three punchy on-beat root notes, before taking off to a bunch of other notes.
They repeat this pattern every two bars. That anchors the bass line into their key’s root note, as well as providing a rhythmic anchor. Every couple bars their bass briefly anchors melodically (to the root) and rhythmically (to the beat), before it ventures off to explore. And that exploration creates a melodic “arc” (i.e. contour), which we’ll get to in Step 3.
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Multi award-winning college lecturer