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I'm a drummer who knows very little about stringed instruments (I can play some basic stuff on the ukulele, but that's about it). I have "written" a bass line for a song I'm working on. By "written" I mean that I can sing out the notes, but I'm not sure where to start with actually figuring out what notes I'm singing. It's something fairly slow and simple (similar in complexity to the opening bass line in Seven Nation Army, not that I'm claiming quality of what I've got is comparable).

Do I have any hope of trying to figure this out myself or am I better off finding someone who knows more than I do to help?

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  • One clarification that would steer answers: do you actually have a bass and can mess around on it? Or maybe a keyboard? May 17, 2022 at 17:08
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    @AndyBonner I have a keyboard, don't currently have a bass. May 17, 2022 at 18:29

5 Answers 5

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find just one note in your head-tune that matches any note on the bass, bear in mind that you only have to go to fret 5 before you can find that same note playing the next thinnest string open without fretting anything.

Example ... play fret 5 of the thickest string and then play the second thinnest string open. It should be the same pitch, but likely a different tone to the sound.
If you stay within four frets of your given note and go across the strings, up and down as your head-tune goes, you should be able to pick out your tune given a little time. Google "interval training"; learning to find those notes and noting how far from your start note they are, will teach you some intervals. Many effective bass lines are made from simple intervals that work to outline the notes in chords.

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An obvious anwer is 'find someone who can do it better than you', but what's wrong with trying to diy? Assuming you have access to a piano, say, (probably the best instrument here), then establish the key you want to be in, messing about with notes, till one sounds right. Then, the hit-and-miss process of finding the subsequent notes, one at a time. Even more complicated wielding a uke (or bass)!

The problem you then have is how to write them down, so someone else can read them and play the line/s.

That way, you'll learn more about what you're doing, for the future, if there will be more songs.

On reflection, the opening gambit sounds like the better move for now...

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This is something you learn how to do when you take a music theory course. Which you may want to consider doing. (Save money by choosing a community college.) You could also buy a second-hand textbook.

First you label the chords. The most common ones are I, IV, and V. What you do is work with the most important notes in the melody and write down what chords include the melody note. For example, say the options are iii, V and vii. The most common choice there is V, but you can experiment with the others and see how you like it.

If you buy a fake book or beginner piano book, there will probably be chords already written in.

Once you have a chord progression for the whole tune, then for each main beat, choose one of the notes in the triad belonging to the chord. Often you will want the lowest note of the triad, but experiment until you like the way the bass line sounds.

There are other things you would learn in a music theory course (e.g. passing notes), but the above could get you started.

Have fun!

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The original question is equivalent to "how to compose music." It's a lifetime study. However, if you want a nice melody to go with a given bass line, there are a few procedures (not rules, just what has been found by others to work well.)

The first idea is to avoid parallel perfect intervals. When two lines of music move by the same interval, the lines often sound more like a "rich" single melody, rather than two independent lines. The rule is often stated: "avoid moving to perfect unisons, octaves, or fifths by parallel motion.) The idea is to have the bass line support the melody, not merely reinforce it. If a pair of lines move a few steps (even 2, but 3 are easy to hear), the whole composition sounds a bit like one instrument dropped out. This rule also helps improvise a bass line when accompanying a jam session.

It helps vastly to know a bit about chord progressions, chord inversions, and a bit of other stuff. This one can learn by trial and error or (much) faster by formal study.

Another useful procedure when just stuffing things above a bass line (which is not a bad way to compose a piece.) It's called the "Rule of the Octave" or more commonly "Regle d'Otava"). It was devised for Renaissance and Baroque keyboard players to improvise chords above a bass line. The idea is to suggest chords that work well above certain bass notes in rising or falling bass lines. This is a bit more complicated than just avoiding parallels.

https://www.partimenti.org/partimenti/about_parti/rule_of_the_octave.pdf

http://www.singanewsong.org/byu/theory/grad_review/The%20Rule%20of%20the%20Octave.pdf

http://musictheory.sites.gettysburg.edu/unit-4-1/the-rule-of-the-octave/

http://musictheory.sites.gettysburg.edu/unit-4-1/rule-of-the-octave-in-minor-keys/

There's more. Once you find a few things that work, you will find more; it becomes addictive.

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  • I'm not looking to create a melody to go with the bass line. I'm looking to figure out what the notes are in the bass line. May 18, 2022 at 11:25
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If you have a tune in your head - which you can keep in your head whilst also playing a random bunch of conflicting notes over it - then just use the 'machine gun' method. Keep firing until you hit something.

  • Sing your note.
  • Start at any C on the piano* - sing your note, play the key.
  • Does it match?
    • Yes - move on to the next note in your tune & repeat the process.
    • No - play the next key up until you find the match.

This method, assuming you can actually tell when you have the right note, even if it's in the wrong octave, is literally fool-proof. It relies on no musical knowledge whatsoever, only on the ability to recognise when the two notes match.

Because of the high possibility that doing this will make you lose track of what note you're actually trying to find, record your sung line [on anything, computer, phone, it doesn't matter] so you can keep referring back to it.

*or start at any note you can recall the position of, even if you don't know its name. [You're going to have to find its name and its equivalent on the bass at some point, or you have to do this exercise again to translate it to bass guitar.]

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