Die Baßmethode

Crispin Sexi (Jaysen Ollerenshaw), 2008


The bass part is fundamental in Renaissance music. All higher parts are based upon it, moving with it and reacting to it. There are several period authors who have left us instructions on how to compose the higher parts, but I have yet to find a good method given for devising the bass. Here detailed is a method of my own invention. It is not foolproof, but can provide quite usable bass parts.

Determine the number of notes

For a choral song, the number of notes corresponds to the number of syllables the bass will sing. For instance, if the lyrics are "Oh woe is me, though I love it cannot be" your bass part will need 11 notes.

For instrumental music, pick a number of notes that fits the expected length of the final piece. An 8 bar piece of music could comfortably fit 16 or so notes in the bass part.

Pick a mode

16thC music was composed in one of five modes, similar to the major and minor keys of today. The mode you choose will affect the sound and emotion of the piece.

Mode Mood1 Tonic Dominant Cadences2 Accidentals2
DorianhappyDAD, A, FBb, C#
PhrygianimploringEAE, A, GG#, C#, F#
MyxolydianangryGDG, D, CBb, F#
AeoliansadAEA, D, CG#, Bb
IoniandelightfulCGC, G, ABb, F#

Each mode uses a scale made of a different sequence of tones and semitones in the natural notes. The cadence notes and accidentals commonly used in each mode are also different.

Decide the range

The maximum range of notes for bass singers and instruments is from F below the lowest line of the bass stave to D above middle-C. A smaller range is preferable, in order to cater to a wider selection of singers and instruments. It is normal to stay within the bounds of the bass stave and not employ any notes requiring ledger lines. Many period bass parts do not have a range of more than a 9th.

Write the start and end notes

The first note of the bass part is the tonic of your chosen mode. The last note is also the tonic. The second-last note is the dominant. There you go - three notes of the bass part are already written! It was also common to start a piece with the bass part moving back and forth between the tonic and dominant in order to really establish the mode, so you may do so as well, before moving on to the next step.

Die Methode

Now roll a six-sided die to determine each remaining note of the bass part.

1Repeat the same note or leap by an octave.
2Move by a 2nd.
3Move by a 3rd.
4Move by a 4th.
5Move by a 5th.
6Go to the tonic or dominant, whichever was used least recently.

Movement Rules:

1) If a larger interval follows a smaller one, it may go downwards or change direction. D E B
2) If a smaller interval follows a larger one, it may go upwards or change direction. G C F
3) If a 2nd follow a 2nd, or a 3rd follows a 3rd, you may choose to go up or down. A B C
4) Any other interval twice in a row must change direction. A E A
5) If the note would be forced outside the range of the bass part (this can happen due to rule #1), ignore the roll and try again. G A D

An Example

Say the Dorian mode has been selected. The first note is D. We roll the die and get 6. We were already on the tonic, so we move up a 5th to the dominant A. The next die roll is 2, so we can move by a second. This interval is smaller than the previous 5th, so we can choose to move either up to B or down to G. Letís pick up to B. The next roll might be 4, giving us a 4th. Since the last interval was a 2nd going up, we must change direction and go down to F. Continue on in this fashion until every note is written.

D A B F ... A D

Fixing it up a little

Due to the random nature of this method, it is likely that the bass part you have just written will not sound completely satisfactory. Too many repetitions of the same intervals or the same notes in a row are not very pleasing to the ear, so if this happens, such as in the following example, throw it away and start again.


At the end of each section of music or phrase of lyrics, check that the last note is one of the cadence notes for the mode. If it is not, change it, but make sure the movement to and from the new cadence note still adheres to rules 1 to 5. The following example having "me," sung on the note E would be no good for Dorian mode, but fine for Phrygian.


Also check that the third-last note moves to the second-last note while still following the rules, and if it does not, roll the die again to find a new third-last note that does.

Up until now, all notes in the bass part are natural. Most usually, a bass part will only make use of natural notes, however where an accidental is allowed for the mode, the sharps can be used in ascending phrases and the flats can be used in descending phrases. Accidentals should also be used to prevent any leaps of a diminished 5th or augmented 4th, otherwise known as "tritones". In our first example, the B can be flattened, preventing the downward leap of a tritone from B to F.

D A B-flat F ... A D

Finally, set the rhythm

To complete your bass part, you will need to choose a time signature, either 3:4 or 4:4 and assign each note a length. If you have lyrics to work with, give longer syllables longer notes and shorter syllables shorter notes. Put stressed syllables on the first beat of the bar. Make sure the final note takes up a whole bar.

Here are some example bars showing common rhythms in 4:4 and 3:4 time:

Semibreve. Minim minim. Dotted-minim crotchet. Minim crotchet crotchet.

Crotchet crotchet minim. Four crotchets. Crotchet minim crotchet. Crotchet dotted-minim.

Dotted minim. Minim crotchet. Three crotchets. Crotchet 

Here's an example bass part in 4:4 time:

Semibreve minim minim semibreve minim minim minim minim minim minim semibreve.

Here's an example bass part in 3:4 time:

Dotted-minim minim crotchet dotted-minim minim crotchet minim crotchet crotchet minim dotted-minim.


1) Extrapolated from the properties of the eight medieval modes in Agricola, p Dij. The five Renaissance modes are discussed in Jepesson, though he does not mention temperaments assigned to them by any Renaissance theorists.

2) The more commonly used cadence notes are listed first. The more common accidentals are also listed first (Jeppesen p71-82).


Agricola, Martin, (tr. Trowell, John) The Rudiments of Music, Boethius Press, Aberystwyth, Wales, 1991.

Jeppesen, Knud, Counterpoint, The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century, Dover Publications, New York, 1992.

Other Compositional Techniques

Mathematical Musick: The Contrapuntal Formula of Dr. Thomas Campion, an article by Jeff Lee.

Two Parts in One: William Bathe's method for writing canon above a ground.

The Eighth Part: A system for 16thC composition for eight or more parts, based on Campion's formula.

Copyright Jaysen Ollerenshaw 2008. Free use for non-profit.

Joan & Crispin's Homepage: http://aelflaed.homemail.com.au/