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Our third and final element of music is melody. For most people, melody is the most recognizable part of a song or piece of music. It's the "tune" of the song.

You already know thousands of melodies. You've heard many Classical music pieces, pop songs, kid songs, advertising jingles, and all of the music you enjoy. Melodies are everywhere.

A simple, familiar melodic phrase:


Melody has a strong connection for us all. Before we humans knew how to write, we used songs and melodies to pass stories from one generation to the next. Our brains are wired for melody.

What is Melody?

A melody is a connected series of notes played one after another.

Most of you will recognize melodies as the singable parts of music. When you sing a song like "Happy Birthday," you are singing a melody.

The singer often sings the melody. But, any instrument which plays notes can play a melody and play melodically. An instrumental solo, a guitar solo for instance, is another kind of melody.

Melody and the Bass

Traditionally, bass players don’t play the main melodies of songs much. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t. Bassists are doing it more and more. It is somewhere where bassists have a lot of room to grow and explore.

As bass players, we support and interact with the main melody of a song by providing rhythm and harmony underneath it.

Just because we don't play the main melody of a song often doesn't mean we don't play melodies.

Melody: Riffs

A very common type of melody you'll find bassists playing is the riff. A riff is a repeated melody often played at the same time as other instruments.

Many rock tunes use riffs where the guitar, bass, and maybe even the singer, play/sing the same part together.

For instance, Led Zeppelin's Black Dog:

Rush's Limelight:

Black Sabbath's Iron Man:

Notice that the riff played by the guitar and bass typically alternates with the singer singing another melody.

Melody: Solos

Another type of melody is an instrumental solo. Again, notice that the singer stops singing his or her melody and an instrument, like guitar, plays a solo.

Bass players sometimes get to play solos, too. You don't hear them as much as you should--they're the unicorn of solos. It depends on the style of music. Jazz features the most bass solos. Solos in rock, blues, funk and other styles are more rare.

Here is the first recorded rock bass solo by John Entwistle in My Generation by The Who [0:55]:

Another example is David Hood's bass solo in I'll Take You There by The Staple Singers [1:53]:

Melody: Playing Melodically

Even if a bass player is not playing the main melody, they are still able to play in a melodic way. Bassists often strive to create melodic, singable basslines to complement the whole song.

Paul McCartney is an undisputed master of the melodic bassline. The Beatles' I Want You (She's So Heavy):

Bass Players and Melody

For bass players the study of melody often goes untaught. This may be why you don't hear enough bass solos.

I think melodies are essential to study if you want to create melodic basslines, bass solos, or just understand what is happening in the rest of the song and how to connect it all.

The Elements of Music Summary

This short lesson covered a lot of stuff. Hopefully it gave you a good picture of the general landscape of music. It may seem like a lot to know, and it is. But, you should realize that from all the listening to music you have done over the span of your life so far, you already know a lot of it on an intuitive level. It is just a matter of organizing your understanding of what you are familiar with hearing every day.

As you study music and how to play the bass, you'll be surprised how you don't have to know all that much about all of these topics to be a functional musician. But, if you wanted to, you could spend several lifetimes learning these things at deeper and deeper levels. I hope you will want to spend a good bit of your time learning about the basic elements of music. It's very much worth the effort.

If you feel like you didn't absorb all this information in one reading, come back and reread the lesson from time to time. You will understand these concepts better and better as you develop into a good musician and bassist.