Music on a ground bass

This month's playlist celebrates music on a ground bass, from the Baroque to Queen to the White Stripes.

A ground bass can be called an ‘ostinato’, or in contemporary pop, a ‘loop’. Whatever it’s called, the compositional technique is the same.

A bass line is repeated while the melodies, chords and rhythms swirl around on top of it. It’s the foundation on which the music is built and against which interesting and unexpected things happen. Although it’s very contemporary, its history stretches back hundreds of years. So strap in and keep your ear to the ‘ground’ as we embark on a ‘loopy’ musical journey.

Popularised in the Baroque (16th to 18th centuries), the ground bass laid the foundation for some of its most iconic compositions. Fast forward to the contemporary era and its influence echoes through all genres including rock, pop, and hip-hop. The structure of a repeated bass might seem limiting, but, as will be heard, it underpinned the development of highly improvisatory and ornamental styles.

Zefiro Torna – Claudio Monteverdi (Baroque Era)

The playlist begins in the early Baroque with Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Zefiro Torna.’ This example of ground bass showcases the driving and captivating bassline that was a hallmark of the genre. Centuries of musical innovation were to follow, but this always sounds fresh and exciting. Even earlier examples of music on ground bass can be heard on this playlist.

‘Folia’ – Rodrigo Martinez

The ‘Folia’ by Rodrigo Martinez, played by Jordi Savall on viola da gamba, demonstrates how the ground bass offers a reliable structure that liberates performers to follow their fancies and to improvise. The ‘Folia’ was one of many named and recognisable ground bass patterns that were used by composers everywhere as the basis for complicated and often very long (!) sets of divisions, or variations.

Henry Purcell – Music for a While

No ground bass playlist could be complete without music from the English composer Henry Purcell who was a master of the form. Very unusually, we have included two contrasting interpretations of this tender and inspiring aria from his opera Oedipus, to show how the ground bass lends itself to all kinds of musical freedom.

Canon in D – Johann Pachelbel (Baroque Era)

Johann Pachelbel, a German contemporary of Purcell, composed this familiar example illustrating that the ground bass was used across Europe. Its mesmerising rhythm and bassline are part of what makes this piece a timeless classic. In this version, it is followed directly by its fugue, the only piece in this playlist that does not use a ground bass.

Viva la Vida – Coldplay (Rock/Pop)

Jumping ahead, via Gustav Holst’s rare 19th-century ground bass composition from the ‘St Paul’s Suite’, to the 21st century, Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida’. It beautifully incorporates the influence of ground bass into the realm of rock and pop. The haunting cello motif provides a rhythmic foundation adding depth to the song’s emotional journey. Coldplay demonstrates the versatility of ground bass, seamlessly blending classical elements with contemporary soundscapes.

Still D.R.E – Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg (Hip-Hop)

Remaining in the 21st century, we delve into the world of hip-hop with Dr. Dre’s ‘Still D.R.E.’ This iconic track features a ground bass inspired by classical motifs, creating a hypnotic backdrop for Snoop Dogg’s smooth verses. The fusion of classical and hip-hop elements in ‘Still D.R.E.’ highlights the enduring influence of ground bass across genres.

Another One Bites the Dust – Queen

Closing our playlist is the timeless anthem ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by the legendary rock band Queen. This iconic track stands out for its groundbreaking bassline, which skilfully incorporates elements of the ground bass technique. John Deacon’s infectious bassline provides a sturdy foundation for Freddie Mercury’s charismatic vocals, propelling the song to chart-topping success worldwide.

Noteworthy is the song’s utilisation of both the ground bass technique in its repeating bassline and the use of “word painting.” This artistic technique mirrors the thematic content, drawing parallels to classical ground bass compositions explored earlier. The relentless repetition of the bassline reflects the song’s message about the cyclical nature of societal issues. Through its compelling lyrics, “Another One Bites the Dust” addresses themes of rebellion and defiance against oppressive systems, with the repetitive and impactful bassline serving as a musical manifestation of these powerful ideas.

Hear the playlist below or every Tuesday in April at 3.30pm in the Music Gallery.