Bass doubling

I wrote something yesterday that was confusing even to me when I read it again today. Mea culpa.

The offending sentence was: Wright notes that Sammy “Nestico avoids doubling the bass voice inside the harmony in the next octave above the normal bass range.”

Context is important and I had two different arranging problems fighting for bandwidth in my head. But this begins to speak directly to yesterday’s tease.


Unpacking what he said

The bass in any multi voice context is arguably the voice with the most gravitas. In harmonic analysis, you first look at the bass and then the melody to determine function. Modern commercial music producers clearly understand this – when the jackass in the car behind you has the music pumped up, it is the bass that causes your rear view mirror to quiver 20 feet away through glass and steel. Of course, said jackass probably also has the bass setting maxed out on his system.

I would argue that the bass is at least an equal partner with the melodic voice. Maybe that’s just my inner tuba player talking.

GENERALLY – from an orchestration standpoint, that bass note, regardless of its function or position in the chord, does not need to be reinforced inside the harmony, especially in that octave immediately above the range that is generally considered the domain of the bass voice. First, there are much more interesting things to do with the other available voices (basic and extended chord tones, non harmonic tones, melody, counter melody, etc.). Second, because the bass voice tends to be a strong and/or unique timbre (tuba, bass, bari sax, contra bassoon), doubling that voice in the lower positions in the vertical stack tends to be overkill.

To be clear, I’m not talking about how the bass voice itself is assigned, colored, or orchestrated (any combination of instruments in octaves or unison to create the bass voice), but rather how the chord is voiced above it. And it’s important to remember that in the universe of Count Basie and Thad Jones, there are generally more chord tones to account for in the orchestration than a Bach chorale. The CONTEXT of Mr. Wright’s analysis was that of the chorale harmonization style of composers that typically use extended harmony.

And by the way, a lot of that extended harmony is a byproduct of the desire for good voice leading – one composer’s non harmonic passing tone is another composer’s flat 9. How you orchestrate that harmonic grind is why books like Inside the Score are so valuable.

I am NOT a Kendor salesperson.


By contrast, in the universe of music that my orchestration generally resides in, I’m dealing with a lot more triadic writing. I’ve got 11 voices in my brass ensemble. One (or 2) are the bass; one or more are the melody (which might or might not already be doubling the bass voice). In essentially triadic writing and when using the full ensemble, that means that there is at most 2 chord tones to assign to 7 – 9 voices. Can you imagine a C major triad with a C in the bass and the melody and 9 other voices hammering away at the third and fifth? We shouldn’t do that (and yet it gets done).

So the problem to be solved then becomes weight and balance. Some of this dictated by the composer of the original material either because of their own concept for weight and balance in the composition, or by the texture itself. Some understanding of the overtone series can assist with choices (this is another reason why at least a fifth is desirable between the bass voice and the next chord tone). Some understanding of the acoustics of brass instruments can also inform (e.g. a written C# below the staff for flugelhorn is a relatively weak note and will not balance well naturally with an open G on a CC tuba – the flugelhorn player will have to use more effort than the tuba player to achieve balance).

This is very specific and yet common sense stuff. Most of the time, we don’t have to struggle this hard to make good choices because the choices are apparent. Having said that, I’ve been party to plenty of chords written by ‘good’ arrangers that paid no attention to the acoustics of the chord.

Shall I go on?

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