How Do We Create Meaning with a Bass Line

I love lyrics, both reading and writing them, but as a bassist, I tend to compartmentalize thes kills I cultivate as a bassist and think of them as being separate from and unrelated to the skillsI cultivate as a writer. I think a lot of musicians operate in much the same way, especially when they’re playing in a context where they themselves aren’t responsible for any of the lyrical content.

There’s nothing wrong with just focusing in on the chords or the rhythm and working to write apart that sounds good with the music. Plenty of fantastic songs have been written that way, and not keeping that in mind is a pretty good way to end up with a jumbled mess of clashing tones and beats (without intending to, of course). However, I think there’s a lot of very rich territory to be explored when it comes to writing an instrumental that not only accompanies but actually enhances the lyric, and for bassists, that exploration requires us to ask the question, “how do we create meaning with a bassline?”

Some of the answers to that question seem almost childishly obvious, the kind of music theory101 that’s ingrained so deeply in us as musicians that we sometimes forget it’s there. Pointing out that major-key sounds happy and minor-key sounds sad or that playing louder and more aggressively can communicate increased anger or anxiety is like saying the sky is blue; I don’t think I’m blowing any minds with this info. Things get a little more interesting, though, when we shift our consideration from what the individual instrument is doing to how it plays off of other elements of the song. In the case of bass guitar, I think some of the most interesting compositional tricks exploit the bass’s position as connective tissue between the melodic and rhythmic elements of a song. A good example I like to use a lot comes up whenever a song ends with multiple repetitions of the chorus. On the last repetition, changing up the feel of the bassline, especially moving from something more steady and root-notey to something that moves around a bit more or goes against the main rhythm is a great, not-too-obvious way to communicate that the song is building towards a final release of tension, while keeping the essence of the chorus intact. It’s the same words and tune, but even minor tweaks to the composition can completely shift the feeling they carry.

That’s just one example, and to be honest I’m only now starting to explore this kind of compositional strategy, but to me the possibilities of song-enhancing seem practically endless.

1 Comment

  1. Kyle Cumming on March 31, 2021 at 5:35 pm

    The bass is a hugely important part of the line-up, but that being said people do forget the basics. People forget that they picked up an instrument to explore it and express creativity, but what I see happening is people who get stuck in the mindset of a “bassist’s job is to work with drums to create an underlying rhythm,” and never can move away from that. I think getting caught up in the rules of how and why to play an instrument takes away what, in particular, a bass can actually do. Where does it say that a bass can’t be a lead instrument, or that you can’t have three bassists and one guitarist. Making a bassline meaningful is definitely being the one to stand out like how the chorus repeats, but I believe also to be the one to take the lead every now and again and work with the lyrics like a guitar might. By doing that I think it adds character not only to the songs, but also to the people playing it, and then maybe lyrics won’t be such a foreign land to us bassists and perhaps the other musicians we work with, too. Thanks for your thoughts!

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