Falling bass lines and ground basses

April 2, 2009

For the first week of my music theory course, we have focused on songs with falling bass lines.

Today, we started with the so-called air on a G string by J.S. Bach. As an amusement, I quizzed what a G string was in context of a strip club, and Marcos correctly answered that it referred to a slim garment etc. I thought is odd that actually the thinnest string on a violin is an E string, so why don’t they call them E strings?
J.S. Bach: Air on a G string

When I grew up, the almost cartoon-like figure of a black-cloaked man with wild white hair as conductor was most likely created by Leopold Stokowsky, who conducts in Disney’s FANTASIA. Listen to the bass line that repeats over and over. That is what a passacaglia is: it is a variation form. The composer composes the bass line and jams over it. This orchestration is by Leopold himself, here rather elderly.

JS Bach/Stokowski: Passacagila and Fugue (Passacaglia only)

There are famous falling bass songs from the 1960s that people my age know, and you may hear from time to time on oldies radio stations. The most famous are:

Procol Harum: A Whiter Shade of Pale

Jerry Jeff Walker: Mr Bojangles

And then there are the great Beatles falling bass songs:

Lennon and McCartney: Day in the Life

Lennon and McCartney: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Lennon and McCartney: For No One

Rufus Wainwright loves falling bass music.

Rufus Wainwright: Dinner at Eight

Rufus Wainwright: “Complainte de la butte

[If you like Rufus’s Complainte, check out the original;]

And who can forget the young Billy Joel’s famous:

Billy Joel: Piano Man

And some of you old 60s die-hards will remember one of my favorite:

Procol Harum: Salty Dog

Because my class is full of so many students of different backgrounds, their first assignment may be in any style for any instrumentation. But it must feature a falling bass line.

Today I introduced the ground bass. While I listened to this next performance by Jessye Norman, my t-shirt was wet from tears. I pulled it together to play it for my class, and let many of them cry instead.

Henry Purcell: DIDO and AENEAS – When I am laid in earth (“Dido’s Lament”)

A popular song that shares a very similar bass line served as a palate cleanser:

Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman: MARY POPPINS “Chim Chim Cheree

Next week we will experience the crucifixion and another ground bass composition by studying:

J.S. Bach: B minor Mass “Crucifixus

I want to know more falling bass songs from all genres. Let me know if you can think of more.

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