6 Hacks for Better Bass Lines

Jennifer from Vancouver emailed us with this question: “I’m new to producing, and I’m trying to learn more about bass and how it works, cuz the way I’m doing it now is sounding really boring. You know when you hear a bass line and it just makes you move, how do they do that? I want to be able to do that!” Thank you Jennifer, this is a super fun topic! So, we’ve made a MIDI example that demonstrates our top six hacks for turning boring bass lines into party starters, but first, here’s our one-sentence answer:

Boring bass is a symptom of six musical deficiencies: strong melodic intervals, motifs, syncopation, non-root notes, octaves, and rests – add these, and you’ll have super spicy bass lines!

Okay, so we’ve intentionally made a boring chord progression here with boring drums, so it’s totally up to the bass to bring all the excitement. We’re in A minor, so that’s all the white notes starting from A, and the chords are: Am → Fmaj/A → Am → Cmaj/G → Gmaj → Gsus4. Let’s have a listen. The spelling of this chord progression is: I → ♭VI → I → ♭III → ♭VII, and the notes below the chords are their root notes (see MIDI screenshot). Also, we’ve inverted some chords and added a sus chord to make everything flow. For more on this hack, please watch our chords video from song 1.

As always, we start writing our melody by copying the chords over into the bass track, then muting/deleting everything other than the root notes of each chord. This gives us a boring bass line, which is our starting point. Now, let’s spice things up!

HACK 1: Fix Perfect 4ths & 5ths

Perfect 4th intervals (which are five semitones) and perfect 5th intervals (which are seven semitones) are the most boring intervals by far, scientifically speaking, as the notes vibrate too similarly to each other. So, adding a note in between all perfect 4th and perfect 5th intervals to break them up, will instantly make your bass line stronger. From A down to F is four semitones, so that’s strong, and then obviously from F back up to A is also strong as it’s four semitones again. From A up to C is three semitones, which is strong, but from C down to G is five semitones, a perfect 4th, so that’s weak and boring and we need to fix it. We do this by adding a note in between, to break up that perfect interval. Let’s add an E, which is that happy 3rd note in the Cmaj chord. Now the new intervals we’ve created by doing that are C up to E, which is four semitones and strong, and E down to G, which is nine semitones and strong. Also, always remember to check the last note back around to the first note, so here that’s G up to A, which is two semitones and strong. No more weak perfect 4ths and 5ths. Yay! Now let’s listen to those updates.

HACK 2: Make Motifs

A motif is a short musical idea, and using them will make your melodies memorable. Breaking up perfect 4ths and 5ths will often give you a great first motif. Where we broke up that perfect 4th between the C and G, we got an interesting motif: the bass goes up on the off-beat, then falls to a lower note on the beat. We can use that motif again over the Gmaj. The bass can go up to E again on the off-beat, which is a 6 over Gmaj, then it can fall to C on the beat as the chord changes to Gsus4. The C that we’re landing on here, is the 4 in that Gsus4 chord. We can then use this motif one more time at the very end, by going up to an A on the off-beat, which is a 2 over the Gsus4 chord, and that high A will then fall to the low A that kicks off our bass line. Let’s listen to those updates.

HACK 3: Add Syncopation

Syncopation is accenting the off-beat, and these accented off-beats are what give bass lines their groove. Without syncopation, bass lines sound stiff and boring, but with syncopation they sound exciting and alive. By breaking up that perfect 4th, we ended up with a motif that was syncopated, so we’ve actually already got some syncopation, but we want more! So, let’s add some syncopation to the A, and then use that exact same syncopation on the C. This not only adds life to our melody, it also creates another motif. Yay! Remember, accenting off-beat eighth notes is pretty safe, whereas accenting off-beat sixteenth notes is thrilling. Let’s listen to those updates.

HACK 4: Uproot Some Roots

For the most part, our bass line is still mainly consisting of the root note from each chord, which is boring. While root notes are the most solid foundation for every chord, bass lines that spend too much time on root notes are predictable, and therefore boring. By uprooting some roots and moving them to other notes in the scale, we temporarily destabilize the foundation, which is dangerous but exhilarating. A great place to add a non-root note would be over the Fmaj, as there’s not much else going on there, so let’s add that happy major 3rd note again, A, then go back down to the root, F. Remember to be careful when moving notes that you don’t end up with a perfect 4th or perfect 5th. Now, if we do the same thing over the following A, we have another motif. Yay! So over the A, let’s add that 3rd as well, C, but this time it’s a sad minor 3rd. Let’s listen to those updates.

HACK 5: Add Octaves

This octave hack is exclusively awesome for bass lines and synth lines, but not for vocals and most other melodies. By moving some notes up an octave, we create a sense of movement without actually moving. By the way, the reason this hack isn’t good for vocals and most other melodies, is that an octave is actually also a perfect interval, so it sounds boring when used in melodies that are in the spotlight, like vocals. Not to mention that an octave is really difficult to sing as it’s a huge interval, but that’s not a problem for bass. Okay, the obvious place to add octaves in our bass line are these syncopated root notes over the Am and Cmaj chords, so let’s move them both up an octave. Then, one last sneaky little octave at the end of the Fmaj will make that section flow more, and we’re ready to move on. Let’s listen to those updates.

HACK 6: Add Rests

Rests are little moments of silence, which obviously stop the continuity of sound. As a result, they need to be used sparingly, but one well-placed rest can elevate a bass line to new heights. Rests create phrases, which you can think of as the sections that a vocalist would sing with one breath. And that’s why rests can truly bring melodies to life. So, one little sixteenth rest at the end of the second Am chord, will not only give a little breather, but it will also emphasize the chord coming afterwards, which is that happy Cmaj. And with that one little rest, we’re done! Let’s have a listen to our final bass line, which is now six times spicier than the original version. Lastly, we doubled this melody on a bass synth to give it some bite, then added the piano chords back in. Here’s the full version. Enjoy!

So that’s my answer! Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to learn more about how to write great bass lines, please download our Hack Music Theory for Songwriting & Producing PDF. Do you feel a little bit smarter now than you did a few minutes ago? Then please like and subscribe so we can do it all again next week! And if you have a question you’d like us to answer here on Q&A Tuesday, please comment below or connect with us.

Kate Harmony
Music Teacher
Victoria BC, Canada