In many EDM tracks (songs) is the bassline the most crucial element. There is an extreme amount of music theory and information about making basslines, which can be very overwhelming. In this post, you can learn some music theory and some practical steps with methods by which we can make a bassline relatively simple.
How to compose (make) an EDM bassline? We can make a bassline in three steps, which are:
- Make a musical note rhythm that is 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 bars long. Such a rhythm has all the notes on one pitch, with the only exception of using portamento.
- If the bassline is the first element we make in a track, then choose a musical key. Alternatively, if we have already one or more elements in the track, then we should determine the key that those elements use.
- Place the notes of the rhythm in the pitches within the key from the previous step. Also, place at least most (or all) musical notes from B1 to B3 in piano key frequencies/scientific pitch notation since that is the bass region. There is about pitching such notes many music theory and also many pitching methods, but that is not needed.
In this post, you can learn how to make an EDM bassline in four sections. First, there follows some music theory, and after that, there are three sections that are three steps about making the basslines. At last, there three related questions.
Some Music Theory for Pitching Notes
Here follow some music theory that is probably enough to follow this whole post.
A musical key is a group of pitches, and each of these pitches has a unique relationship with each other. However, such a relationship is a topic beyond the topic of this post. An example key is “E minor,” and it has the pitches: E, F♯, G, A, B, C, and D.
Most of the time, only one musical key is used in a full EDM track. So, all the pitches used in the track consist of those from a chosen key.
Minor musical keys are in EDM way more common than other keys such as major keys. A possible reason for this popularity is that minor keys can sound serious. Further, some popular and safe choices for minor keys are A, C, E, and G.
Of course, choosing a minor musical key or choosing one of the mentioned keys is not a requirement. For example, here is track in the key D♭ major: Armin van Buuren – My Symphony (The Best Of Armin Only Anthem).
Stay in Key
When we are pitching musical notes, then we should only choose notes that are in the chosen key of the whole track.
There are always people who believe that is not always needed to stay in key. However, I don’t know a track with notes outside of the key. Therefore, my advice is always to choose notes from a chosen key (stay in key).
A Bassline Doesn’t Play Notes Simultaneously Except with Portamento
When someone or something plays a bassline, then we should hear only one note played at the same time. So, a bassline should always play one note at the same time, except with portamento, then we can have two or more notes played at the same time. With portamento, the pitch of a note bends into the pitch of other note, and therefore we still hear one note at the same time.
We can only make use of portamento when our synthesizer has a portamento option, which most synthesizers have.
We can make use of portamento effectively by starting in one note, and then later another note becomes active while still the first note is active. So, the first note bends into the second note. We can repeat this process, so that the second note bends into a third note, and so on.
For example, in the image below, while the fourth note is active, also the fifth becomes active. In this case, most synthesizers can slide the fourth note slide into the fifth one with portamento.
Bassline Notes in the Bass Region
When pitching notes, it is safe to choose at least most (or all) musical notes from B1 to B3 in piano key frequencies/scientific pitch notation. The notes from B1 to B3 is the bass region. When we go lower than B1, then we come into the sub-bass region, and when we go higher B3, then we go out of the bass region.
Maybe interesting to know, the bass has a frequency range from 60 Hz to 250 Hz, and the frequency of note B1 is on 61.735 Hz, and note B3 is on 246.94 Hz.
The Tension of the Fifth and the Seventh Note
A musical key consists of seven notes. When we play the fifth note or the seventh note of these seven notes, then we want (can be unconscious) to hear the first note. Such a desire (a.k.a tension) to hear the first note again is most of the time (or always) stronger when we played the seventh note.
Therefore, it can (not a must) be a good practice to go from the fifth or seventh note to the first note of the key. This way of pitching notes be can extended by adding around one or two notes between the fifth or seventh note and the first note, as a preference.
The Chords Are a Guideline
If there are already chords, then there are two good practices for making basslines.
The first good practice is to use most (or all) of the same notes as the chords, but then in an octave below and with possible different note lengths, timings, and rhythm. An exception to this first practice is the second good practice, which is pedal harmony, and section 3.4 explains this practice.
Here is an example with four chords (a chord progression) in the upper part and a bassline in the lower part. Most (not all) of the bassline notes match (with different note lengths, timings, and an octave lower) the notes in the chords.
Switching to a Different Pitch
If we want to have a bassline that consists of musical notes in more than one pitch, then we should have at least one pitch change between notes.
Changing pitches (in a key) from one note to another note happens at a certain pitch distance. When we change one pitch up or down in a key, then the pitch distance is one. Also, we can see every other change in pitch (more than one pitch) as a pitch distance of more than one.
For example, in the A minor key (with the pitches A, B, C, D, E, F, and G), the change in pitch from A to B has a pitch distance of one. In the same key, the change in pitch from A to D has a pitch distance of more than one.
We can see a change in pitch of an octave up or an octave down as a pitch distance of zero since the pitch within the key stays the same, which can be strange to understand. For example, a change in pitch from A2 to A3 has a pitch distance of zero.
We can see pitch distances of zero and one as safe pitch changes, and the distances of more than one as interesting pitch changes. Therefore, when we want to make a bassline more interesting, we can change the pitch between two notes with a pitch distance of more than one.
Use Pitch Distances Effectively
Generally (so not always), changes with a pitch distance of more than one sound better on the onbeat and the offbeat. Onbeat notes start right on the beat and are most of the time at the place as where the bass drum (kick) starts. Offbeat note start right in the middle between beats, so in most cases, the notes start right in the middle between two kicks.
For changes with a pitch distance of zero and one, it does not matter when the change happens, which is probably the reason why people call it a safe change in pitch.
In my opinion and the opinion of many other people, using only pitch changes with a distance of one can be boring. Also, using only pitch changes with a distance of more than one can sound strange, to the opinion of many people.
In both cases, it is better to have all the notes on one pitch (so no pitch changes) or to have only pitch changes with a distance of zero, than to have only pitch distances of one or more than one. However, both cases are not wrong or something like that. So, it is most of the time, a good idea to mix interesting changes with safe changes.
It is common for EDM basslines that they get repeated, which is the case for probably all EDM tracks. Repeating is something natural in basslines and can happen in three ways, which are:
- A producer repeats the whole bassline once or more.
- A producer repeats only the rhythm of a bassline once or more, but the pitches of the notes in the rhythm are different in the repeated part(s). Such repeating explains the next section in more detail.
- More creatively, a producer repeats the pitches of the notes in a bassline once or more, but the bassline rhythm is different in the repeated part(s), as far as possible.
Repeating a bassline is extremely common since it is an easy and effective way to make a bassline longer.
1. The Bassline Rhythm
Our brains follow the rhythms of basslines easier than those of other higher-pitched instruments. Therefore it is most of the time a good idea to give the rhythm of a bassline some extra attention. However, this does not mean that you should make it more complicated.
On this site, there is a blog post about music note rhythms that probably has all the information need about bassline rhythms. A summary of the most important things from that post follows here.
An effective (probably the best) method is to copy a rhythm from other elements, for example, a drum rhythm.
The other way around works too, first make a bassline rhythm and then use that rhythm for another element. However, that is out of the scope of this post, since that other element is not a bassline.
Every rhythm has a length, which is almost always in bars. Moreover, every rhythm length is allowed. However, I only recommend a few possible lengths to use.
The rhythm lengths that I recommend are also by far the most common in EDM, and are:
- 1 bar
- 2 bars
- 4 bars
- 8 bars
- 16 bars
If you don’t count the 1 bar length, then all the lengths listed here are an even number, which makes them hopefully easier to remember.
Like mentioned in the “Repetition” section above, it is common that rhythms in EDM basslines get repeated, which is the case for probably all EDM tracks.
For example, we have a great sounding 4 bar long bassline rhythm, but we want a 16 bar rhythm. In this case, we duplicate the 4 bar bassline three times, so we get four times a 4 bar bassline. Then, when we place the original and the duplicate basslines directly behind each other, we get a 16 bar rhythm.
2. Determining the Musical Key
If the bassline is the first element that we make for a track, then we can choose a musical key. Of course, we can use every key we want, but minor keys are the most common (and a good safe choice) in EDM. Also, there are four minor keys are easier to use (and a good safe choice) which are: A, C, E, and G.
You choose a key on how it sounds while playing music notes, and you can’t make a wrong choice since it is always opinion based.
If we have already elements in our track, like chords or drums, then we should use the same musical key that these elements use. Yes, percussions like drums can also have a pitch.
If we have elements in our track and we don’t know the musical key, then that can be a problem, if we care about it. This problem is also out of the scope of this post and becomes the subject of another post. I will add the link to that post here when it is available (I have to make it first).
3. Pitching Methods
First of all, a bassline can stay on one pitch, and a bassline with more than one pitch doesn’t have to be more effective.
For example, when you have a bassline rhythm with all the music notes on G2, and you love how it sounds, then you can skip this whole section.
If we don’t want to use one of the methods below, but only want to use the theory from the section above “Some Music Theory for Pitching Notes,” then we can also compose a great bassline.
The purpose of this section is to give methods that we can use to pitch music notes, such as the music note rhythm from step one. Moreover, in some situations, it is possible to combine multiple methods. The subsections here below are those methods.
3.1. Call and Response
Call and response is a common music pattern, and we can apply this pattern also with the pitches of music notes.
A call and response pattern has two structures, where the response structure is a commentary on the call structure. Therefore the response is a noticeably different structure than the call structure, and the response comes after the call.
The difference in the call and response structures can occur with music notes pitches in two ways, which we can also combine. The first way is that the response structure has at least one different pitch than the call structure. The second way is that the response has a different ordering of pitches than the call.
A simple example is that the call structure has only music notes on the pitch G, and the response structure has all the notes on the pitch A♯. We can get way more creative with more different pitches than this simple example.
3.2. From One to Five, to Three, and Maybe to Six
The method “From one to five, to three, and maybe to six” has maybe a strange name, but this is because it doesn’t have an official name, at least as far I know. This method became popular (or more popular) with the video and book: The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein. In this book and video, Leonard explains the method in Lecture 1, “Musical Phonology.”
For some reason, “The Unanswered Question” is pretty well-known, but I have never seen someone explain the method “From one to five, to three, and maybe to six.” However, there are many musical elements (like basslines and melodies) in many tracks that sound like they followed this method.
We can use the method in four steps, with two possible extra steps, which are:
- Split all the music notes from a note rhythm into three or four groups.
- Secondly, change the pitch of the first group to the first pitch of the determined musical key.
- Change the pitch of the second group to the fifth pitch of the key.
- Change the pitch of the third group to the third pitch of the key.
- Extra: If you have split your notes into four groups, then change the pitch of the fourth group to the sixth pitch of the key.
- Extra: Maybe change some notes to a different pitch within the key, one of the duplicate pitches, for example.
Here is an example with seven notes. Of these seven notes, the first three notes are on G, the fourth and fifth note is on D, and the sixth and seventh note is on A♯.
3.3. Copy and Transpose Music Notes Pitches from a Melody or Chords
To perform this method, we need a melody or some chords since we use the music notes pitches of those elements.
We can do this method in four steps, which are:
- Choose a melody or some chords.
- Copy all the notes from the chosen melody or chords an octave (12 semitones) below, and it is essential that you not change the timing of when the notes start. After that, remove the original notes, so only the copied notes stay.
- If there are notes stacked above each other and we don’t want to use portamento, then we remove stacked notes until there are no stacked notes left. See below in this method for more information about when you have copied some chords.
- If there are notes below B1, then change the most (or all) of these to an octave above. Further, if there are notes above B3, then change the most (or all) of these to an octave below.
Here is an example with a melody in the upper part and a bassline in the lower part. The bassline is almost an exact copy of the melody, but it is an octave lower, and some note lengths are different.
Removing Copied Notes from Chords
If we have copied notes from some chords and we want to remove stacked notes above each other, then it is a common and good practice to leave the root note. Most of the time, the root note is the bottom note of the chord, but not always since the chord can be inverted.
Inverted chords can be a topic that is extremely hard to understand, and it has not so much to do with EDM basslines. Therefore, I won’t explain it here, but if that is a sort of a problem for you, then I suggest making chords yourself. So, you know which chords are inverted if you choose to do so, and you don’t have to invert chords.
If you want to learn to make simple and effective chord progressions (chords), then there is a post about making such chords on this site that can probably help you.
3.4. Pedal Harmony
With pedal harmony, we choose a pitch within the musical key, and we only (or almost only) use that pitch for an element, which is the bassline in this case. Usually (not always) the first pitch of a key (the tonic) is the pitch to use in this method. If our bassline rhythm (from step 1) is on one pitch within the key of the track, then we already use this technique.
Here is an example with six chords in the upper part and a bassline in the lower part, and all the bassline notes are on the first pitch of the key.
Ostinato is an Italian word and means stubborn. An ostinato bassline is a bassline that does not change during multiple sections of a track, and also does not have to change when the chords change.
An ostinato bassline should still work with the chords, as explained in the section “The Chords Are a Guideline” above. Moreover, using 7th chords in your track can help since it gives more pitching possibilities for the notes.
It is not strange for an ostinato bassline that we will letterly hear it the whole track unchanged, from the first second to the last second of the track.
Here is an example with four chords in the upper part and a bassline in the lower part. All of the bassline notes match (with different note lengths, timings, and an octave lower) the notes in the chords. This bassline is 2 bars long, and we can repeat it over the whole track.
Here is another example that is almost the same as the previous example. The only difference is that this bassline is 1 bar long. Therefore the bassline repeats more often and is in a way a bit more an ostinato bassline.
Should we play in a bassline two or more musical notes simultaneously? When we hear a bassline, then we should never hear more than one note at the same time. However, with portamento, we can make (compose) a bassline that plays two notes simultaneously, but we don’t hear it simultaneously. Portamento bends one note into another note, so we hear then only note.
Should we make (compose) a bassline before a melody or chords (chord progression)? No, we can make first a bassline and a melody/chords afterward, and it is not necessary that a bassline works in harmony with melody/chords.
Which musical notes should we use in a bassline? When pitching notes, it is safe to choose most (or all) musical notes from B1 to B3 in piano key frequencies/scientific pitch notation. The notes from B1 to B3 is the bass region. When we go lower than B1, then we come into the sub-bass region, and when we go higher B3, then we go out of the bass region.