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I've heard this bass line in a number of songs, including Billy Joel's "Piano Man", "One Day More" from Les Miserables, and "Rambling Through the Avenues of Time" by Flight of the Conchords. It's certainly a useful line: downward moving major scale, with a simple II-V-I at the end, and it's used in a variety of styles. Does this bass line (and maybe the associated chord progressions) have a name?

enter image description here

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    It's also in the chorus of "I Want You Back" by Jackson 5.
    – jdjazz
    Feb 13, 2022 at 3:15

4 Answers 4

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A descending walking bass line, four in a bar. Walking bass happens when the notes are going up or down in a scalar fashion. They don't continue ad nauseum, because when there's a change of harmony, they'll often jump to the root, and then continue.

Walking like this means there's usually two notes from the prevalent chord played. Good players will make those on 1 and 3 when possible. A nice touch is to use the ♭9 of the next chord on beat 4 (or 4&) of the bar leading to it, as with the second to third bar on the same chord would mean finishing bar 2 on root, then starting bar 3 on root again.

It's the intro to Nina Simone - My Baby Just Cares For Me.

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Yes, it's called the Romanesca, and it's a melodic-harmonic formula going back to the 16th century.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanesca

The bass line of the Romanesca takes either one of the two following forms. The older one goes as such, and the pattern can be remembered by the formula "down a fourth and up a second"
Romanesca-old

The newer one is the one you posted.

If you approach this from a voice-leading perspective though, you will see that if you transfer the newer bassline melody (the one you have posted) to another voice above, say the soprano, you can play the older bassline I just provided underneath and there you get your harmonic pattern. This can be heard most prominently right at the beginning of the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel.

Romanesca-overlap

This video explains it much better than I could over here.

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  • the songs they mention aren't examples of this schema Feb 14, 2022 at 15:45
  • Yes, but the bassline they posted is very clearly a Romanesca. I was commenting upon that.
    – nahorov
    Feb 14, 2022 at 17:45
  • Not really. If you read the Gjerdingen chapter about the Romanesca, you will see a mere descending bass line does not make a Romanesca. Feb 14, 2022 at 18:07
  • It doesn't, hence I have explained how to construct the schema.
    – nahorov
    Feb 14, 2022 at 18:13
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It's possible to harmonize a descending scale in the bass as a series of 5/3 6/3 chords, like I V6 vi iii6 IV I6...

Generically you can call that a harmonic sequence which is when you transpose a harmonic pattern several times. The pattern is I V6 and it gets transposed to vi and IV.

Specifically you can call this sequence...

  • a 5-6 sequence in reference to the figured bass symbols 5/3 for the root position chord and the 6/3 of the first inversion chord of the initial pattern.
  • a falling thirds sequence in reference to either the sequence pattern transposing by descending third or the possibility of harmonizing the bass in thirds with an upper voice, like the soprano here...

enter image description here

You could also harmonize most of that example link according to a rule of the octave harmonization as something like I V6 V64/V V V4/2 I6 vii06.... There are slight variations between rules of the octave from different teachers.

But, the "problem" comes when looking at some of the songs you mention.

The lead sheets I found show Piano Man as progression C G/B F/A C/G F C/E D7 G....

And One More Day as C C/B Am Am/G...

Both have a descending scale in the bass, but neither of those is harmonized as a falling thirds sequence or rule of the octave.

It doesn't make sense to me to use a name of a particular progression, sequence, bass, etc. when the particular song isn't an example.

The most generic way to describe your example is simply a descending bass. That may not be a catchy name, but it is the simplest way to describe the thing that unifies all these examples, and it is exactly what your example is. A common usage in harmony texts is: "how to harmonize a descending bass."

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It's often called the "lament bass." It's common in classical and pop music. Both diatonic and chromatic descents occur and there are various harmonizations. One version is common in Flamenco music. Some examples: "Hit The Road Jack" Ray Charles "Dido's Lament" Henry Purcell "32 Variations in C Minor" Ludwig van Beethoven It's been a popular construct for the last few centuries.

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    I considered that, but that's more along the lines of 8, b7, 6, 5, and chords tend to follow each note. It's the Spanis - Sequence. But that's usually a bar apiece. OP asks about a continuous bassline, moving four times a bar - and often in a minor key - maybe hence 'lament'..?
    – Tim
    Sep 11, 2020 at 14:31
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    The lament is usually chromatic rather than diatonic. This one is more often called just a "walking" bass. Sep 11, 2020 at 15:29
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    I agree mostly with Tim's comment, though it doesn't necessarily have to be one bar per note. But the "lament bass" is mostly associated with a descending tetrachord pattern that spans 8 down to 5 in the scale.
    – Athanasius
    Sep 11, 2020 at 16:14
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    This is not the bass line to Hit The Road Jack and other such tunes. That bass line is C Bb Ab G TO back up my position, simply play the bass line that is being asked about and then play the one I have presented. They aren't the same and you will immediately recognize which one is Hit The Road Jack, Feb 13, 2022 at 0:31
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    @KilianFoth for a diatonic instance of the lament bass, see the Lamento della Ninfa of Monteverdi. The lament is, however, always minor, whereas this is major.
    – phoog
    Feb 13, 2022 at 20:46

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