I posted a question some time ago asking for tips And suggestions hearing chord progression. Many of the answers I received back told me to “listen to the bass note”. Anyone care to explain or elaborate on why the notes that the bass are playing is significant to the chord progression (harmony) of a song at all?

Can a song have more than one chord progression at different points in the song.

  • Chords nowadays are not often inverted. So by listening to the tone in the bass and the quality of the chord, you could quickly identify what the chord progression of a song/passage is. Aug 9, 2020 at 23:32

5 Answers 5


Many of the answers I received back told me to “listen to the bass note”. Anyone care to explain or elaborate on why the notes that the bass are playing is significant to the chord progression (harmony) of a song at all?

You were told to listen to bass notes, because most of the time, the bass note i.e. lowest note is the root of the chord. If the bass is playing an F, then the chord is F something. This rule is true something like 90% of the time, and in many pop songs 100%.

If the bass note is not the chord root, then it's called an "inversion", but in pop music they are an exception. So, if you can tell what the bass note is, you almost have the chord you're looking for already. The only thing left to find out is if it's a major, minor, sus or dim chord, or maybe a "power chord". Which you can try out. Most often it's a major or minor.

  • And from a rhythmical perspective, 90% of the time, "the bass note" means "the bass note played on the first beat of the measure". Aug 13, 2020 at 18:39
  • @AliceOualouest yes exactly, good comment. In funk, jazz, rockabilly, boogie woogie etc. the bass notes can be all over the place with different patterns, walking bass etc. But what's played on the ONE of each bar is what counts the most. Aug 13, 2020 at 20:03

I suspect you're coming at this from a guitarist perspective?

Suppose you play a C major chord. C, E and G. Suppose there's a bass player and they play C. The overall harmony is a C major chord.

Now, suppose the bass plays A. Now we've got an Am7 chord. Perhaps they play D. Now we have C/D - sometimes rather inaccurately labelled as D11 or D9(sus4).

Big differences in sound and musical function. And all about a change of bass note.

'More than one progression'? Well, it depends on what you mean... You could take the whole song, beginning to end, and call it one 'progression'. Or you could (more likely) look at it in sections. Maybe it's just the Blues (or some other repetitive chord pattern) constantly repeated. (And there's nothing wrong with that.) Maybe there's an introduction, a verse, a chorus, an interlude etc. all with different chord patterns. Yes, a song can have several chord progressions.

  • can you explain what you mean by ‘You could take the whole song, beginning to end, and call it one progression’. I always assumed that the only way to interpret a chord progression was on a sectional basis, in the same way I would do melodies, bass-lines, and the other elements that a song may consist of. Anybody else is welcome to share their insight also.
    – BLG
    Sep 2, 2020 at 1:14
  • Hey Laurence, are you there??
    – BLG
    Sep 4, 2020 at 2:24
  • Some music falls into repeated patterns, some doesn't.
    – Laurence
    Sep 5, 2020 at 11:20

The bass stands out as the lowest (in general) note (like the melody stands out as the highest.) I'm limiting the discussion to music with a structure having a bass line (whether played by a bass or bank of celli, etc.) and a melody (like a song or a solo; harmonized melodies are for the most part treated as a single entity) with some "filler" in between. The rhythm is separate.

The term "bass" can be used in two senses: the lowest note played or the "fundamental bass" of the current harmony. I'll try to use "bass line" vs "fundamental bass" to keep these apart. In some notation styles, the fundamental bass is indicated by the letter name of the indicated chord and the bass line by a letter after a slash. (I tend to sketch pieces with a single staff melody, a bass line, and a letter for the chords in between. Later these can be written down for whatever instrumentation is wanted.)

One very (-very) popular chord progression is the Romanesca. It's about 500-600 years old and one version has the bass line C-G-A-e-F-C-F-C. The chords are the same. However, one can change the bass line while keeping the fundamental progression like this: C/C-G/B-A/A-e/G-F/F-C/E-F/F-G/G (like in some arrangements of Pachelbel's Canon). Now the bass line walks down the scale from C to E and back to G. Thus the same chord progression can appear in more than one version. Other variations have been used: C/C-G/B-A/A-C/G-F/F-C/E-d/F-G7/G or (even more popular in the 1700s: C/C-G/B-A/A-C/E-F/F-C/E-d/F-G7/G. The progression can appear in a minor key: c/C-g/Bb-Ab/Ab-Eb/G-f/F-c/Eb-d07/f-G7/G.

The point is that the bass line may sound better when playing something other than just chord roots. (There are other possibilities such as having the bass play non-chord tones or play several notes against the same chord. These are harder to show in slash notation and really need a book or two rather than simple posting.)

  • Hey can you elaborate on what exactly figured bass is and how it differs from traditional note played?
    – BLG
    Aug 31, 2020 at 3:02
  • 1
    Figured bass is a method of representing both the bass note and the intervals to be played above that bass. For example, a C major chord in the key C major is just the note C and the figures 3 and 5 written alongside,.C-E-G(There are conventions which mean that the 3 is always implied, etc.) However a C with 6 and 3 written alongside (the 3 may be missing) shows the notes C-E-A. It's fairly nice to play from in that the bass line is written out and explicit harmonies are show. It does not show the fundamental bass nor the rhythm.
    – ttw
    Aug 31, 2020 at 12:24

Start with your last question: there can be many different chord progressions to any parts of a song, given that several different chords will fit over a series of notes. However, what's a chord progression? It may be three or four bars worth, it may be the whole verse, chorus, etc. but generally, the chord progression that is accepted is the one the song was originally recorded with - it's the one most people recognise.

Now, your other question.For each and every chord, there is a root note. From a triad of 1, 3, 5, the one note which sounds most stable is the 1, the root. With that as the lowest note, the chord sounds most solid, compared with the 3 or 5 at the bottom.

Try playing just the roots on the first beat of each bar, and that's often what the bass line is - what the bass player plays - or is expected to play! Use a guitar, piano, even a bass. Get used to that set-up, and listen to many songs, as that's what happens a lot. So, when you work the other way, trying to find the chords, that bass note is often a good clue.


I know this idea from Arnold Schoenberg. In Fundamentals of Musical Composition - chapter XII - he says "watch the bass line." The harmonic style of the book is Common Practice.

The figured bass method of the early part of that era associated certain harmonizations with specific scale degrees. You can loosely translate that figured bass view into functional harmony ideas. Common figured bass harmonizations used only the tonic, dominant, and subdominant harmonies. For example, the iii scale degree, the mediant in the bass, would be harmonized with a first inversion chord, a chord of the sixth. You can extend that idea to then say degree iii in the bass has a strong tonic association.

Let's look at another example but using the leading tone...

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The vii scale degree, the leading tone, has a strong association with dominant harmony and the standard harmonization in figured bass would be a first inversion chord V6. If we add a third voice to create a complete triad there are two choices: a first inversion chord or a second inversion chord. The second inversion chord would be iii6/4. To the extent that chord runs contrary to the dominant tendency of the bass we could take an alternate view and say that chord is really an appoggiatura or some other non-chord tone. If that tone steps up or down, it will move to a tone of the dominant chord.

In my mind, I think of it like this: the bass generates the harmony, the treble decorates the harmony, and the simplest functional analysis is preferred over unusual progressions.

Can a song have more than one chord progression at different points in the song.

I don't think you mean polytonality or something like that, so yes a song can have more than one chord progression. Actually, that's what gives good structure to the sections of songs. Contrasting progressions distinguishes sections. Also, a phrase of music can be re-harmonized so that the melody is kept the same and repeated but the accompanying chords are changed.

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