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Bass: Definition, Vocal Range & Comparisons

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Each line in four-part music has its own role. In this lesson, we are going to check out the bass voice and see what impact it has on the texture and structure of a composition.

The Bass in Four-Part Music

Musical notes are kind of like cattle. They tend to organize on their own, but you still need someone to round them up and keep them from scattering.

One of the common forms of composition throughout Western history has been four-part writing, in which the music is divided into four independent lines that complement and build upon each other to create melody and harmony. Three of the lines tend to naturally organize together, but can still scatter unless organized. The line responsible for this is the bass. It's what herds the other lines into the chorale.

Position and Range

The bass plays an important role in four-part music, so where exactly do we find it? Four-part music breaks the composition into four lines, each with a different range. The highest is the soprano, then the alto, the tenor, and the bass. So, the bass is the lowest line of the four-part harmony. Its typical range is from the E above middle C all the way down to the second E below middle C.

General range of the bass line in four-part music
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That's a span of two octaves, and not everyone is comfortable with that entire range. The most comfortable span of the bass range is actually pretty easy to find; it's generally considered to be the space between the top and bottom lines of the bass clef staff. Considering how deep this range is, the bass line in a choir is almost exclusively performed by male singers.

The Bass Line as Outer Voice

So, why does the bass line matter? In four-part writing (whether for a choir or instruments), the bass line plays a very important function. Imagine the four lines, stacked on top of each other, in order. The bass line is the bottom one, and the soprano is the top. If this were a building, the bass would be the foundation and the soprano the ceiling. We call these two lines the outer voices because they're outside the tenor and alto (the inner voices).

In four-part music, the outer voices are generally the ones you hear the most. They provide the main structure and texture for the music, while the inner voices complete the chords and harmonies. Basically, the outer voices create the structure of the music, and the inner voices fill it. Being the lowest voice and an outer voice, the bass is pretty audible and establishes the foundation of the composition.

The Bass Line as Lower Voice

The bass is also important for another reason. The tenor, alto, and soprano are all loosely related as the upper voices of four-part music. The bass, however, is the lower voice. This means that it plays a unique role in the composition and is kept separate from the other voices. While the upper voices are grouped together, the bass has basically free range.

In four-part music, the bass line is the lowest one
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In technical terms, we can understand this in intervals between the notes of each line. As a general rule, the upper voices all have to be within an octave of their sequential counterparts. That means that there can't be more than an octave between tenor and alto, and there can't be more than an octave between the alto and soprano. In general, you want to keep these lines within a sixth of each other.

The bass, however, isn't restricted by these rules. You can find the bass a 10th, 11th, or even 12th below the tenor line. That's because the upper voices are supposed to maintain a good degree of distance from the bass at all times.

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