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There are a lot of songs that have a melody, usually a simple one or even a two-note pattern, that is played during many bars, but the bass note for each bar changes, implying chord changes?

One example is the intro to Sweet Child O'Mine.

UPDATE: Other is the two-note guitar melody in U2 "With or Without You".

UPDATE2: A perfect example is the guitar melody in Steve Vai's "Junkie", which keeps unaltered even after full strummed chord progression begins.

Is there a "formula" do achieve this?

  • Guns N' Roses song Sweet Child O' Mine? – Michael Curtis Jan 18 '17 at 0:11
  • @MichaelCurtis yes, from their "Appetite for Destruction" album. I have heard even better examples, but can't remember any of them... – heltonbiker Jan 18 '17 at 1:16
  • Well I added a fine example: "With or Without You", by U2. – heltonbiker Jan 18 '17 at 1:23
  • Is the verse vocal melody against the bass on 'In A Broken Dream' by Python Lee Jackson [Rod Stewart] similar to what you mean? – Tetsujin Jan 18 '17 at 7:23
  • @Tetsujin not quite. I updated the question with a perfect example: Steve Vai's "Junkie". – heltonbiker Jan 18 '17 at 12:25
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A repeating phrase is usually called ostinato, regardless of whether or not the harmony underneath changes. It is common that an ostinato line changes a few notes to fit changing chords, but that's not necessary. Note that your example of Sweet Child O'Mine does exactly that, it doesn't repeat unaltered but there is always one note (the first one) that is changed to fit the current chord.

It is quite simple to find fixed phrases that fit well over diatonic changes. Especially if you use pentatonic ideas, the melodies will fit almost any chord of the key. As an example, use a simple two-tone motif with the notes A and G, and play it over the changes ||: Am | G | F | G :||.

  • Good answer, one observation though: the way I see it, the first note of each bar in the Sweet Child example is the bass note I was referring to, and I wouldn't say it accomodates chord changes, but instead defines them. What do you think? – heltonbiker Jan 17 '17 at 20:38
  • To explain further, the pattern I am looking for is a strict repetition of a simple melodic theme, where harmonic progression is defined/implied exclusively by bass/pedal notes. – heltonbiker Jan 17 '17 at 20:41
  • @heltonbiker: The second time around the first note is not the bass note but the third of the chord, whereas they play the root as the bass note, if I remember correctly. – Matt L. Jan 17 '17 at 20:45
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A similar concept is found in "Cry me a River" by Davey Graham in 1959. In the intro, he arpeggiates an Am chord four times, and each time the arpeggio starts with a bass note that descends chromatically-- first A (matching the root of the chord), then Ab, G, and Gb.

Similar to this is the intro to "Stairway to Heaven," which features successive forms of an Am then D chord, with the same descending bass notes as Cry Me a River.

I believe this technique is called the "line cliche," and goes all the way back to Bach. So it may help to search for that phrase.

  • That's indeed a line cliché, but that's a constant harmony under a usually descending line, which is different from a constant phrase over changing harmonies. – Matt L. Jan 18 '17 at 7:33
  • I updated with another example, "With or Without You", by U2. Specifically, the effect I am referring to can be reproduced with only the ostinato two-note guitar part and the bass line. The harmony is then implied by the notes present in each bar. – heltonbiker Jan 18 '17 at 12:18
  • I have heard of the term C.E.S.H. (chromatic embellishment of static harmony or contrapuntal elaboration of static harmony) used synonymously for 'line cliche.' chordaddict.com/2011/08/… – Michael Curtis Jan 23 '17 at 19:36

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