Ground Bass

Ground Bass is a composition technique built upon a short theme played in the bass which constantly repeats with changing harmonies.
The bass theme does not change, but the parts above the bass change and develop.
Let’s have a look at the origins of ground bass, listen to some examples and learn how to compose using ground bass.

The Origins of Ground Bass

Ground Bass has its origins in cantus firmus, a development of plainsong in which a repeated melody was sung and other tunes played alongside it in counterpoint.
Many instrumentalists at that time used to improvise melodies over the top of a repeated bass pattern.

Examples of Ground Bass in the Baroque Period

Ground Bass became particularly popular in the 17th century during the Baroque period.
Composers of the time often used it as a basis for string music variations.

“Music For A While” by Henry Purcell
Henry Purcell used ground bass in his piece “Music For A While”.
Have a look at the sheet music below (which I have annotated in red to show the ground bass) and watch/listen to the live recording of the piece on NPO Radio 4.
Music For A While by Henry Purcell Ground Bass Example

“Cantata No. 78 (Jesu, der du meine Seele)” by J.S. Bach
J.S. Bach used ground bass in a number of his compositions. Have a look/listen to this performance of Cantata No. 78 by The Netherlands Bach Society.

The Chaconne (or passacaglia)

The Chaconne (or passacaglia) is a dance composed using the Ground Bass technique.
The dance has 3 beats in a bar.
Here is J.S. Bach”s Chaconne Partita No. 2 performed by Midori.

Some composers used ground bass in combination with other techniques. For example Pachelbel’s Canon (arguably one of the most famous pieces of classical music listened to today) uses a combination of both ground bass and canon.

Ground Bass in The Classical and Romantic periods

Ground bass was used less as a technique for composition in the Classical and Romantic periods as other forms of composition, such as the sonata, symphony and concerto became more popular.
However, composers did still use the ground bass technique.

“32 Variations in C minor” by Beethoven
Beethoven uses ground bass in his 32 Variations in C minor. Have a look at the sheet music and listen to a recording of the opening and variation 1 below:

Beethoven 32 Variations in C minor Annotated Ground Bass Example

Beethoven 32 Variations in C minor Ground Bass Example

The Influence of Ground Bass on Contemporary Music

Whilst we don’t find many contemporary pieces titled “Ground Bass” the influence of the repeated bassline as the foundation for a piece of music can be widely heard to this day.
For example, 12 bar blues is built upon a repeated 12 bar chord/bass structure.

In popular music, artists often use repeated basslines and chord patterns throughout a song and build layers of melodies and harmonies on top of them.
Have a listen to Viva La Vida by Coldplay.
Can you hear how the bassline/chord progression is repeated throughout the song, whilst the other instruments (including the vocals) are varied?

How To Compose Using Ground Bass

Learning how to compose music using ground bass is a great way of developing your compositional technique and improvising on your instrument.

Let me show you a worked example of how to compose a piece of music using ground bass:

  1. Choose a chord progression. I am going to keep it simple and use mostly primary chords in the key of C major, with one secondary chord to make it more interesting. I have put in the root notes from the chords as my bassline.Ground Bass Composition Bassline sheet music
    Ground Bass Composition Bassline

    I am starting and ending on chord I and am going to make my ground bass pattern 8 bars long.
  2. Add in some inversions. Now I am going to make the bassline a bit more interesting by adding in some chord inversions.Ground Bass Composition Example Bassline added chord inversions sheet music
    Ground Bass Composition With Inversions
    In my Ground Bass example I have added first inversions in on the chords highlighted in red.
  3. Improvise a melody over the top. Now I am going to improvise a melody over the top of the bassline. I am going to keep it simple to start with so that there is plenty of scope for me to develop the melody as the piece progresses.Ground Bass Composition Example added improvised melody sheet music
    Ground Bass Composition Improvised Melody
  4. Develop the Melody. I have completed the opening 8 bars of my ground bass piece. Now I am now going to repeat my bassline and develop my improvised melody line.Ground Bass Composition Example added developed melody sheet music
    Ground Bass Composition Example
  5. Keep Repeating and Developing The Melody. At this point I can keep repeating my ground bass progression and developing the melody a bit further each time. It really helps if you have access to some recording software or notation software as you can copy/paste the original bassline.

Anyway, I hope this has helped you gain a better understanding of ground bass.
Good luck with the composing!