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I have written a half decent lead, at least for my level, and I am now trying to harmonise a bass with it. I am employing one of the most basic kind of methods to achieve this - playing the root note of the lead with the bass, to harmonise it with the lead. Well, actually I read that this method is used with chords (where it would be the root of the chord, not the scale), though I am only writing a monophonic lead, (i.e no chords) for now, since I am just starting out.

These are my lead and bass notes:

Lead (Portato): Bass(legato): Harmonic value:

C  *2         C                          Perfect consonance
A# *1         C                          Weak Dissonance
G  *3         C                          Perfect Consonance
F  *2         F                          Perfect Consonance
E  *1         F                          **Strong Consonance**
C  *3         F                          Perfect Consonance

I think an image is in order: enter image description here

A few things:

1. The bass is two octaves below the lead.

2. That white bar before the red is only to show that the two bars are separate by the way, it's hard to see otherwise :)

3. Also note (haha, get it, note?), that the notes do vary, but the set up is configured to display the notes all on the same line to show which notes come from what sound at any given time.

So what am concerned about is the notes of E coming from the lead, and the note of F coming from the bass, it doesn't sound out of place at the time (remember that the bass is played legato), but this is really just for future reference in case say, half the notes don't harmonise well. Also, I have no idea what the implications of this may be if I was to try and apply EQ, or add certain effects, and so on.

Since bass lines are usually grounded, in that they are played smooth and constant, where leads are pretty much the opposite, I wonder what the status quo is when it comes to harmonisation. Are there any rules of thumb? How strict should we follow the rules of harmonisation in respects to basses and leads?

One thing I notice is that there seems to be less and less dissonance as we play notes further and further apart, even when purposely playing only two notes which would be very dissonant within the same octave, such as E and F#, to a certain degree, even E and F.

My personal though by no means professional theory, is that the lower the pitch of a note note X, the less sidebinds there are, thus leading to neither consonance or dissonance.

Thanks for reading my post, it's very much appreciated! :)

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  • I'm not sure what you mean by "sidebinds". By widening the gap between pitches, you're lowering the beat frequency. Eventually it gets slow enough that it's not really noticeable. Regarding your title question: No. As for rules of thumb: What style of music are you writing?
    – user28
    May 13, 2015 at 4:01
  • Hey, am not really sure what style am writing for, am just beginning. Although, my main focus now is dance music, which, from what i've read, includes dubstep, house, pop, and other such genres. Also known as EDM, electronic dance music. What sidebands are doesn't really matter by the way, my little theory was really just a side note (though the term is a real and technical term though, used in timbral analysis, or acoustic analysis)
    – user108262
    May 13, 2015 at 4:59
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    In my mind, if the bass and the lead don't sound good together, the lead is more likely to be seen as the incorrect note, not the bass. I think the music term for sidebands are sum and difference tones. Also, I wouldn't get too hung up on the technical analysis. If it sounds good then it is good. May 13, 2015 at 14:03
  • One very common way in which the bass and melody will diverge is through the tritone substitution. Say the chord progression is Dm7 - G7 - C, with the melody going C - B - C. The bass may elect to play the tritone subbed version -- Dm7 - Db7 - C -- and play the notes D - Db - C. Db is very much not in a G7 chord, yet the harmony works just fine.
    – MattPutnam
    Sep 12, 2022 at 16:04

5 Answers 5

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There is no "have to" in music. There are common patterns and conventions, but the only rule is, if it sounds good, it is good.

it doesn't sound out of place at the time

... and therefore it's OK.

I have no idea what the implications of this may be if I was to try and apply EQ, or add certain effects, and so on

EQ generally has very little effect on harmony concerns. The only exception I can think of is if your EQ filtered out the frequency range that gave a particular instrument pitch -- in this case it would hide any harmony/pitch problems.

Time based effects like delay could end up placing two pitches together which clash. Worry about it when it happens, and use your ears.


Sometimes discord works. Sometimes you want nothing but harmony; it depends what you're going for.

Two concepts that may be useful are "passing notes" and "resolution".

A "passing note" is a note within a sequence of notes, which leads from one note to another. It's pretty common for passing notes not to harmonise, but you don't stay on them for long, so nobody worries about the discord.

"Resolution" is when music hangs on a discordant combination of notes -- or some sound which otherwise causes "tension" in the listener, then returns to a "comfortable" combination of notes, releasing or "resolving" the tension. For example, a song in C major might end on a C13 chord, held for a bar, then going back to a nice clean C major.

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  • Hey slim. So basically what I get from this is that 1. Passing notes are only exceptions, in that most notes in the bass will harmonise with the lead. B. Even if so, it is the resolution to the tonic that people enjoy anyway, thus dissonance isn't to be avoided completely, since otherwise there may be no resolution.Though, harmonisation is still preferable right? In that even though passing notes may not be a problem, if half or more of the notes clash, would this be a problem? What's considered too much dissonance? By the way, I really appreciate your answer, thank you for your guidance :)
    – user108262
    May 13, 2015 at 21:58
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"Harmonize" does not mean "consonance." That's important for really understanding your question.

Does the bass always have to harmonise with the lead?

If "harmonize" was meant to mean "consonant", then no, the lead does not always need to be consonant with the bass.

The essential meaning, the historic meaning of "harmonize", is to combine parts in a musical way. That's pretty wide open for what "harmonize" and "musical" mean in technical terms. But, in the terms that you posted - "perfect consonance", "strong consonance", "weak dissonance" - all of those and more may be present in well harmonized music.

In that sense, yes the lead should always harmonize with the bass, meaning you always want the lead to work musically with the bass (excepting avant-garde styles.) That harmonization may include very conspicuous and expressive use of dissonance.

Are there any rules of thumb?

Yes. But it is the study of harmony and counterpoint. Those topics are too broad to cover is a Q&A format.

However, if we just stick to the broad consonance/dissonance aspect, you could come up with some practical guidelines:

  • Make melody progress step-wise through scale tones or skips outlining triad chords (keeping the melodic range within a octave or a twelfth is practical for singable lines.)
  • In terms of chords, major and minor triads are the basic consonant harmonies.
  • Using consonances on strong beats generally creates musical stability.
  • Using dissonances - including on strong beats - creates instability and dramatic tension. Dissonance off the strong beats can be called unaccented dissonance, and placing dissonance at unaccented points is a common approach, but not a requirement, in tonal music.
  • When there is a dissonance between the bass and lead moving one of those voices by scale step to form a consonance will resolve the dissonance "smoothly."
  • The ebb and flow of consonance and dissonance creates forward impulse and movement in music.
  • You're free to use chromatic tones or change the scale, generally consider those changes to be be destabilizing, similar to the destabilizing effect of dissonance, which can be exploited for expressive effect. Sticking to the diatonic tones of a scale will generally have a stabilizing effect.

This rules of thumb list is my own creation, but it is based on common ideas and procedures found in harmony and counterpoint textbooks. It makes no rules about chord root progression and relative motion so you should be able to apply it to a lot of different styles. It's really just a simple framework for thinking only in terms of consonance and dissonance.

...One thing I notice is that there seems to be less and less dissonance as we play notes further and further apart

That seems to be particular to that software. You would need to know what it's calculating to say more.

Dissonance/consonance is usually stated objectively in terms of pitch ratios, where 1:1 - a unison - is the perfect or most consonance you can have, and the rest is just an infinite spectrum of greater and greater dissonance.

Generally, the lower an interval is played the "muddier" it will sound. C2 E2 will sound muddy compared with C4 E4 (the numbers indicate octave.)

IMO widely spaced dissonances seem less harsh than closely spaced dissonances.

In both cases I think this is more about acoustics and overtones than pitch ratios of the fundamental pitches. Low range intervals have messier overtones. Closely spaced dissonances have noticeable beating. I don't really know acoustics, so I can't give a good explanation. Aesthetically the two points are easily perceived.

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A general principle for bass in most current popular forms of music is that "the bass should play chord tones on strong beats". Strong beats are typically the 1 and 3, and in addition, there is a strong tendency to play the root of the chord on the 1. Doing this is the most straightforward way for the bass to perform it's dual role of harmonic and rhythmic foundation.

In order to determine which chords your melody is implying you'll either need a good ear, or an analysis of the notes that comprise the melody.

There are various ways to stray from this general principle, since uniformly conforming to it can sound tired. A good example is adopting a "one-drop" rhythm where the bass does not play on the one; since this comes from Reggae music, it often lends that flavor, or is appropriate in the context of that kind of music.

However, being aware of the general idea that the bass should play chord tones on the the 1 and the 3, and when you choose to deviate from it

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  • Ah, I see, so what you provide is guidelines with which one can deviate from, if it would work in their favour. I like the safety that such guidelines offer since when one is uncertain on the course of action, then at least there's some solid grounding with which one can stand. Say, is there a resource out there with other such guidelines? Thanks a lot by the way :)
    – user108262
    May 14, 2015 at 2:34
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In general, the bass line needn't be continually consonant with the melody, but it should support the melody. The bass and melody should make good (not "strict") two-part counterpoint with the melody. One may wish to avoid parallel fifths and octaves (so as not to sound like the bass quit playing) but some dissonance can be useful.

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You are going to need at least some very minimal piano skills, knowing a few scales, etc. You can find these online.But an electronic dance track should be able to pack the floor with just the bassline and drums.

You really should start by focusing in your favorite of these genres and build a library of music. Then you need to start listening to them constantly and chart out what beats the various "signature" drum sounds appear on, e.g. 808 hand claps always come on an upbeat, in house the kick drum is typically on the 1, 2, 3, & 4. Then make your own beats based on your findings.

Then you write lines that have a catchy rhythm that isn't identical to the drums, but accents on the correct beats. Hip hop beats accent on 2 & 4, for instance. Refer to your notes. Until you get a handle on some theory, just raise or lower the pitch of the whole repeating lead pattern until it sounds good over the bassline.

If you are actually a fan of some other genre, learn that. Don't do dance music because you think its easy, if your heart isn't in it it will be a chore. If you love it, you'll get the hang of it soon enough.

And read the British magazines they are about 1000x as useful.

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    This answer seems unrelated to the question. Was the question heavily edited after you posted this? May 13, 2015 at 14:08

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