This post got me thinking about root movement. It has been said time and again that root movement of an upward fourth and descending fifth are particularly satisfying, and obvious choices when working towards good voice leading. But are there situations in which a bass that moves by step is more appropriate? Sequences like the one below are what mostly come to mind (C maj): enter image description here

But I can think of other examples . . . what about the chorus of Changes by David Bowie?

It looks something like this (also in C maj):

enter image description here

And it certainly is amazing. But wouldn't traditional music theory have pushed him to write a bass line that looks more like this (forgive me if this doesn't look pretty):

enter image description here

If anyone could elaborate on this concept (namely, the various effectiveness of stepwise bass vs. bass lines that follow the circle of fifths), then I would be very appreciative.



  • 1
    "But wouldn't traditional music theory have pushed him to write a bass line that looks more like this " No - not unless he had only read the very first lesson of a modern harmony textbook, and hadn't progressed beyond "chords in root position only". (Also note, in your proposed example the third bass note should be F not C!) – user19146 Aug 17 '18 at 7:02
  • @alephzero, according to the OP's question, he is right making the bass note of the third chord a C because he is talking about bass line movement of fourths and fifths. An F there would make movement of a 2nd or 7th depending on direction. – Heather S. Aug 17 '18 at 11:47
  • @alephzero, thanks for the comment. I decided to make it an IV6/4 chord so that I could still have the upward 4th movement. I was doing this for example's sake, because the alternative would have been the stepwise movement from G to F which I was trying to contrast the example with. That brings me to another question, though, so thank you. Does the upward fourth/downward fifth movement suggestion only apply to chords in root position? Thanks! – 286642 Aug 17 '18 at 12:14

You can try turning this question around and see how voice leading paradigms result in the different root movements.

Basic voice leading holds common tones between chords and moves the other voice the smallest distance to the tones of the other chord.

With triadic harmony there are only 3 possibilities for moving the voices: move 1 voice, 2 voices, or 3 voices.

When those basic rules are put together we get chord progressions whose roots move by descending/ascending 5th, 2nd, and 3rd...

enter image description here

1. root progression by descending/ascending fifth

  • all step-wise in two voices
  • parallel 3rds and 6ths

2. root progression by ascending 2nd

  • stepwise and thirds (leaps) in all thre voices in contrary motion to the bass
  • parallel 3rds and 6ths
  • direct perfect 4ths

3. root progression by descending 2nd

  • all step-wise in all three voices parallel to the bass which plays the third of each chord
  • parallel 3rds, 6ths, and 4ths

4. root progression by ascending third

  • step-wise in one voice only
  • oblique motion between 3rds and 4ths

In my notation I put a line between notes of the moving voices to show the relative motion and position.

I tried to typical functions: circle of fifths sequences, IV V for ascending 2nd, dominant harmony for ascending 3rd. Ascending 3rd is rare in common practice so I decided to demonstrate with dominant harmony V viio this could be interpreted as a non-progression and instead an arpeggiation of the larger V7 chord.

I put inversion figures in parenthesis to show that all these progression types - except #2 roots by descending 2nd, parallel sixth chords - can be used over root position bass parts.

Back to the original question...

...root movement of an upward fourth and descending fifth ...are there situations in which a bass that moves by step is more appropriate?

Part of the problem is the question sort of switches back and forth between bass motion in terms or root and actual tones. Keep in mind that the tones the bass plays are not necessarily chord roots. In the four paradigms above the bass is a root position (except type #3) but the actual bass voice moves variously by descending/ascending 5ths and 2nds, as well as 3rds.

But another model should be added to those voice leading paradigms: the rule of the octave. The rule of the octave is a harmony model about how to harmonize a step-wise bass line. It's part of common practice harmony:

enter image description here

...if you examine the harmony you will see that while the bass movement is entirely step-wise the roots are almost all descending/ascending 5ths.

There is a complete mix of possibilities bass movement by step and leaps and chords in root position or inverted.

Regarding Changes by David Bowie: I don't think the 'traditional theory' approach would be to play the harmony all in root position. Understanding 'traditional theory' to mean common practice, the chord changes are the un-traditional part! Common practice might have kept the descending bass line harmonized it with slightly different chord, chords that would be mostly tonic/dominant.


Both are nice. Both can be (and have been) used with the same root progression. Take the "La Folia" progression: i,V,i,VII,III,VII,i,V,.... One bass progression is 1,5,1,7,3,7,1,5.... Another is 1,#7,1,2,3,2,1,#7,1. The second case makes a nice discant to the first bass line.


Not a lot to say except that yes, V - I bass lines are good and strong, and so are stepwise ones. I wouldn't consider 'traditional theory' preferred one or the other.


Motion by fifth is much easier to manage in four voice harmony, if you are following the western-tradition voice leading rules. But stepwise motion is possible, with some caveats.

Stepwise motion with the root in the bass is problematic because it will usually result in parallel fifths, which are forbidden (and all over the place in your first example, by the way). In a typical IV-V progression, the upper voices move in contrary motion to the bass in order to avoid this. Just going up continuously is very difficult.

Stepwise motion is also do-able with the third in the bass, and doing this continuously is sometimes called parallel sixths. When voice leading with parallel sixths, you can even discard the customary predominant-dominant-tonic ordering, because it is considered sequential instead of progressive harmony.

Another possibility is stepwise motion in the bass where the bass note alternates in function. For example, Pachabel's Canon is written as a descending bass line where every odd-numbered chord is in root position and every other chord is in 63 position. This results in the sequence I V VI III IV I, which you may recognize from a whole bunch of other songs. This sequence is sometimes called "Descending 5-6 syncope" because it descends and alternates between 53 and 63 chords.

There are ascending versions as well (for example, Tiptoe through the Tulips).

But just straight chords up and down the scale with the bass in the root? Pretty rare. From a voice-leading perspective, very hard to pull off.

  • Parallel fifths forbidden? Not in some types of music, where they abound. – Tim Aug 17 '18 at 7:11
  • See paragraph above "if you are following the western tradition voice leading rules," which of course are not obligatory to any artist. – John Wu Aug 17 '18 at 14:51

In my experience and training, the circle of fifths progressions are more important in the overall chord progression. However, you can have good circle-of-fifths progressions and still have very smooth step wise bass voice leading by using inversions (Bach seems to have been excellent at this). I was taught to make the overall root harmonies follow circle of fifths, but make the vocal parts have smooth leading.

Hope this helps.

  • If bass guitar had been around in Bach's day, he'd have been one of the best bassists in the world. – Tim Aug 17 '18 at 7:08

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