The story of humanity’s international melody of lamentation, which can still be heard in popular music everywhere, starts, as many things do, in ancient Greece.
Greek tragedy didn’t fuck with just major or minor chord progressions like most Western music; this would have been too easy. Pythagorus had his own tuning system for christ’s sake. No — ancient Greeks had their own music theory. Various arrangements of notes, sometimes atonal, could be used by a Greek chorus to gut-wrenching emotional effect. The crowd favorite for a heartfelt lament was dubbed the ‘Dorian’ mode, after the Dorians of classical Greece.
Think of the Dorian mode as another kind of key; not major or minor, just different. Since most Greek modes consisted of groups of four notes (aka “tetrachords”), the descending order of notes in the Dorian mode would become known for their somber quality as a “lament bass”. This bass line, starting with the Dorian Greeks, has survived right up to the twenty-first century – through the Andalusian cadence of flamenco music and Viennese opera to Green Day’s “Brain Stew”.
The big boss of lament bass would have to be Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, a pioneer of opera and a crucial figure in renaissance music. One piece of Monderverdi’s music, the sad story of “Lamento Della Ninfa” (“Nymph’s Lament”) appearing in a book of madrigals published in 1638, would embed itself in popular culture for centuries. Built off a single descending fourth of A-G-F-E, a lament bass, the nymph weeps an aria of beauty and captivating unpredictability. Several times, the nymph’s melody implies a key change, but the bass just keeps chugging along: A-G-F-E… A-G-F-E…
This kind of minimal repetition was unusual for the time. The Nymph’s Lament was much more simplistic than most orchestral music of the Baroque era. Melodic invention in the 1600s was expected to be as rococo as the furniture. But fast forward a few hundred years and all of pop music is based on melodic repetition.
During Monteverdi’s time, a repetitive bass line, then called a continuo, would finally be welcomed into popular music. The effect was immediate and became widely popular with European audiences. To quote Ellen Rosand’s 1979 Music Quarterly article, The Descending Tetrachord: An Emblem Of Lament: “During the fourth and fifth decades of the seventeenth century, a particular bass line pattern, the descending minor tetrachord, came to assume a quite specific function associated almost exclusively with a single expressive genre, the lament.“
The descending tetrachord swept the continent in popular music, as the public’s ears had been tuned to recognize the pain and sorrow implied in a lament bass. In a way, the bass line alone was able to express tragedy. Simply the presence of this melody was mournful enough, even without operatic lyrics expressing grief or sadness.
No prior knowledge of Greek language or music theory was required to connect with the anguish embedded in a descending tetrachord: the lament bass spoke for itself. All nations and cultural milieus had the same emotional response. There seemed to be a magnetism to this melody, like a whirlpool that drew the listener in to its turbulent waters, drowning them in its troubled wake.
The lament bass was not the only melodic line to win over composers and their courts. The “Plagal” cadence branded anything even remotely religious in the Christian world with its emblematic 4 to 1 cadence. Just think of the ending of any church choir song, the part where they all say “AAAAHH-MENNNN:” thats the Plagal cadence.
On the flip side, the church would not allow, ever, a flatted fifth. Just the thought of it would defile their squeaky clean psalms. No, this interval was considered harsh, ugly, dirty, and even Satanic — all values worth their weight in gold on the modern music market. Black Sabbath would later employ the flatted fifth to infamy.
Today the echoes from those ancient Greek choirs are still reverberating. The Beatles used the descending tetrachord… a LOT (see also “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). The lament bass is everywhere in popular music. 2019’s Billboard hot 100 reeks of the descending tetrachord; the current #1 Billboard song, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” (yeah, the “Favorite Things” rip-off) offers a great example of this in opening notes. And it’s not just Ariana. Check today’s other Billboard top 10s: Halsey, Travis Scott, and just about every darkwave band.
In the end, this is just another melody out there in a never-ending sea of melodies. Sure, all meaning inherent in any art form is implied not intrinsic, it’s really up to the audience to derive and extract their own feelings. So the lament bass is just a bass line then.
But is it really? Could there be some inherent emotional quality that can cross cultural borders and language barriers? Music has that power. And the descending tetrachord seems to possess an innate spiritual force that drives its melody in to the future, persistently, century after century, all in only four notes.
Taylor Hill is a writer, musician and ghoul currently hosting The Based Goth Radio Show on Freeform Portland.