Ground Bass: Definition, Composers, Instruments & Examples

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  • 0:03 A Firm Foundation
  • 1:41 A Familiar Example
  • 2:51 The History of Ground Bass
  • 6:22 An Enduring Device
  • 7:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charles Pickeral
This lesson provides a brief overview of what the term 'ground bass' means in Western music and how it is used to create comprehensible, meaningful musical structures. You'll also get some examples of famous works constructed using this technique.

A Firm Foundation

If you were living in London around the turn of the 17th century, there's a good chance that one day you would have found yourself crossing, or at least looking at, London Bridge. The one that's falling down in that nursery rhyme and which we now call Old London Bridge, since it was replaced and torn down in 1831. When you did, you would have found a fantastic collection of buildings, including a stone chapel, shops, and seven-story houses as well as gates, drawbridges, and mill wheels.

Because of the many varied and interesting things to see, you might not have paid too much attention to the fact that all of these sat atop a simple, sturdy, and repeating series of piers and arches. But, if we'd looked from another perspective, we'd have seen that these piers and arches, plain and unremarkable as they appear, were what supported and connected everything else, as well as gave all these other structures a collective identity as London Bridge.

If you were living anywhere in Europe at the same time, you would have very likely heard music that was constructed in much the same way: varied, often complex, and somewhat irregular musical structures built on top of a solid and simple repeated foundation. Such works go by many names depending on context, but the generic name for all of them is ground bass, or basso ostinato in Italian.

Ground bass describes a compositional technique in which all the melodies, chords, and rhythms are built on top of an unchanging melody in the lowest line of music (the bass). It can also be used to refer to just this bass line or to the entire work. Because it's a fairly simple technique, it could be applied to music of almost any type: vocal or instrumental, sacred or secular, fluffy or profound.

A Familiar Example

You don't have to go back to the 17th century to hear a ground bass composition. In fact, if you've been to more than two weddings in your life, there's a good chance that you've already heard Johann Pachelbel's 'Canon in D.' This work consists of three melody lines that imitate each other at regular intervals, like a round (that's what makes it a canon), becoming progressively more active and angular as the work unfolds. Beneath all of this imitation and complexity, there's a rather austere sequence of eight notes, all of equal length, going on in the bass line.

You can hear these eight notes clearly right at the very beginning, before the other melodies start, and you'd be forgiven if you just thought this was some kind of introduction to the real action. But, if you listen carefully, you'll notice that these eight notes are repeated over and over without changing: 28 times in all. They're the firm foundation upon which all the rest is grounded, and they provide a sense of unity for the work, even if you're not really paying attention - just like those piers and arches holding up London Bridge.

The History of Ground Bass

The technique of ground bass shows up initially in Western music during the Renaissance (c. 1450-1600), the first era that commonly used a bass line. In the 15th century, it was most prominent in dance music. Some well-known dances, such as the bergamasca and the passamezzo, became associated with specific bass lines, or grounds, and these lines would alert the dancers to the required pattern of steps. Later, in the 16th century, when interest in instrumental music began to develop an identity beyond mere accompaniment for songs or dances, performers on the lute or harpsichord would often improvise melodies over a repeated bass line.

It was during the Baroque era (c. 1600-1750) when ground bass really came to the fore in Western music. We've already talked about Pachelbel's Canon from this time, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Virtually every major Baroque composer employed this technique prominently, including _Monteverdi, J.S. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi_. Genre names like passacaglia and chaconne are used to describe instrumental works constructed with a ground bass.

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