If you look below I posted a link to a question I previously asked about the bass acting as the melody of a song and recieved multiple answer assuring me that it can. So in the case that you have a song where the bass is acting as the melody what would you use as your harmonic outliner since the bass is acting as the melody ? I was taught to listen to the bass line to figure out the chord progressions to a song because it outlines the harmony but in this case the bass is performing a different function. I know it's no right or wrong answer and each person might have their own method of approaching this. Please share some of your insight.

Bass line melodies

4 Answers 4


You need to train your ear to hear inversions, and then you can use your knowledge of what inversion a certain chord is in to figure out what the root is. (If it's first inversion, the root is a sixth higher. If it's second inversion, the root is a fourth higher. If third inversion, a second higher. The sequence of roots is what determines the actual harmonic progression, even when the bass is NOT acting as the melody part.

  • Sorry that does not quite answer my question. When I'm listening for the chord changes in a song I listen to the bass line to determine the chord's root. But if the bass is playing the melody then I wouldn't be listen to the roots of the chords instead I'd be listening to the notes that make up the melody. Basically what I'm saying in the question is that I have no reference point for hearing the chord changes when the bass is not functioning as the harmonic outliner. Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 4:15
  • 1
    The bass note is not always the root though. When the bass line is acting as the melody line it is usually one tone of the chord at that point, unless there's a non-harmonic note such as a passing tone involved.
    – L3B
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 4:20

In simple triad chords, there are three notes. Any one may be present anywhere in a bar containing that triad.

You need to be able to establish whether that chord is major or minor, by listening. As L3B states, there will be different mixes - voicings- of those 3 notes. You have till now expected the bass to reveal the root of that chord, but now, the root will be, 99% of the time, either the 3rd or the 5th of that triad. The third will stand out as the easiest to identify since it's the defining part of maj/min.

You will have to re-think how you listen. If the bass is playing the 'melody', - unusual, but not impossible - then some of its notes will surely belong to that underlying chord/harmony.Taking a I chord, as opposed to a IV chord, there is only one common note, root of I. I chord to V chord, there's again only one common note, root of V. Taking IV to V, there are no common notes. I think it would be a good idea to listen to some simpler songs, and write out what you hear on the fly, not relying on any instrument/voice, but the basic 'feel' of each chord., especially the feel of one change against another. Minor chords can feature when you are solid with the normal 3 majors. Same goes for 4+ note chords - later.


Just because a bass note is a melody, it doesn't stop being the lowest note and thus the note with the most influence on the perceived harmony. However, melodic structure can also affect the prominence of some notes over others. Thus, strong beats, high points, low points, corners in direction changes, prominent interval leaps, all these sorts of thing carry more weight and influence than passing tones or weak beats. For this reason, with a bass melody, sometimes you analyze for the most "influential" notes of the melody that are still present in one's ears due to melodic prominence, and give them as much or more weight than the exact note being played at a given moment.


A lot of these kinds songs that have a prominent bassline in the style of the example in your linked question have very sparse arrangements, and the bottom line is that there may not be a clear chord progression; if there isn't, no technique is going to allow you to sensibly determine one through analysis. So a good first question to ask yourself would be "given that not all pieces can be said to actually have a chord progression, why do I think this one can?"

The answer to that question may then give you your foothold into the analysis! For example....

  • If there is another instrument playing block chords, then what those chords are may express the overall chord progression of the song (or they may 'complete' a chord when added to the bass note at any given time).
  • If the bassline is following a pattern of mainly sticking to one set of chord tones, then moving to another set of chord tones, you can consider those 'sets' of chord tones to be 'chords'.
  • if the set of notes played in the whole song implies a certain tonality, then you could think about what chords that tonality might imply if building them on the strong, prominent notes of the bassline.

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