Listen To This: Bass Lines of Music History


Today we’ll be continuing our walk through Alex Ross’s book, “Listen To This“. We’re going to be looking at the second chapter today, in which Ross guides us through notable bass lines in music history.

Last week, we looked at Ross’s first chapter, an essay that shares the title of his book, in which he lays out his relationship with both classical and pop music. Along with presenting his own personal relationship with music in this chapter, Ross also provides a sweeping overview of music history, and demonstrates the wealth of information at his disposal.

Again, as we continue to go through “Listen To This”, we want to keep two things in the back of our mind. One, that successful musicians and composers throughout history have succeeded by making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Ross brings this up in the prologue, and we’ll see how he continues to draw this line through the book.

The second thing to keep in mind, is the art of writing about music in general, and how tenuous it can be. Granted, Ross might like us to think that writing about music is difficult because it’s his job, but he is also an accomplished music critic of “The New Yorker”. Anyone interested in writing about music could benefit from a lesson or two by Ross.

But enough foreplay. Let’s get into this week’s chapter.

Bass Lines of Music History

In this chapter, Ross guides us through a centuries of music history, in order to demonstrate how one particular pattern was passed through a number of very different genres. By the end, we’ll see that in reality, these genres aren’t so different after all. At their root, they share a common thread.

The Chacona

On the cusp of the seventeenth century, there was a musical in the Spanish Empire known as the chacona. It was listed among other popular dances of the time, particularly ones that were dubbed as “given by the devil”. In the opening of this second chapter, Ross provides a brief analysis of the chacona’s structure.

“The devil did fine work: the chacona is perfectly engineered to bewitch the senses. It is in triple time, with a stress on the second beat encouraging a sway of the hips. Players in the chacona band lay down an ostinato — a motif, bass line, or chord progression that repeats in an insistent fashion” (p. 22).

Folk Lament

Along with the chacona, the folk lament (also known as basso lamento) can also be seen throughout music history. The main pattern consists of a four-note descent that can be traced from Bach, to Ray Charles, to Bob Dylan. More often than not, this pattern leans toward the chromatic. The lament can be heard in older genres as well. “This pattern shows up all over Eastern European folk music” (p. 26).

In an aside, Ross states that musical expression typically falls into two categories: contours and conventions. Contours are “melodic shapes that imitate some basic aspect of human speech or behavior”, while conventions are “gestures that listeners within a particular culture learn to associate with particular psychological states” (p. 27). He then states that the lament is more contour than convention, as it transcends cultures and psychological states, being included in both depressing and joyous songs.

The Walking Blues

While we can’t cover everything that Ross covers on this journey, it’s important to note where he ends. The blues are intimately familiar to us. We know its feel and presence even if we aren’t fans. “One feature common to many early blues, whether commercial or rural, is the old downward chromatic slide” (p. 50).

After brushing past the early twentieth century, Ross arrives at the ’60s, when “lamento bass was again the rage” (p. 52). He points out early adopters in the form of Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but later moves on to a more disruptive force.

“Dylan and the Beatles may have won the plaudits of the intellectuals, but Led Zeppelin launched a no less ambitious raid on music history, commandeering rock, folk music, Delta blues, Indian and other non-Western music, and smatterings of classical tradition” (p. 53).

Ross highlights Zeppelin’s place in the journey by dissected their classic, “Dazed and Confused”. The bass line features the familiar four-note descending pattern.

Final Thoughts

In this chapter, Ross connects musical dots across hundreds of years of music history. I wish we could dive deeper into this chapter, because it has so much more to offer than what we had to squeeze in here. Still, this overview should give you a good starting point. If we looked at contemporary music, I’m sure we could find some artists who incorporate the lament in modern pop songs.

That about wraps up our discussion for today, though. Next time, we’ll look at how recordings changed music.



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