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6 min text | 8 min music

One of my favorite Radiohead songs uses a technique with roots going back more than 400 years — the lament bass.

A quick bit of history, then Radiohead.

The lament bass started life as a thumb in the eye of Renaissance composers, especially madrigalists who overused a technique called word painting. Instead of writing a madrigal with one emotional reference point — joyful, sad, what have you — these madrigalists would reflect certain passing words of text with a winking musical illustration of that word. The word “high” gets a high note, “running” gets fast notes, and so on, even if it suddenly jolts you out of the emotion of the overall piece. The audience titters at the drollery, and the composer writes MOAR WORDPAINTING on his hand.

Sometimes it works well:


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That’s the madrigal As Vesta Was Descending from 1601. The word descending gets a downward run, ascending is an upward run. Later there’s a duet on two by two, a solo on all alone, and a long held bass note on the word long. It’s all harmless and cute for one reason: the word painting never contradicts the overall joyful emotion.

But to be a madrigalist in the 1590s is to never ignore your shoulder-devil, painting every word even if it wildly snaps you out of the emotion of the piece. A lyric like

Grief o’erwhelms my soul, tears flow like rain
Never again shall I be happy
So let me die now, alas

would start dark, then the word “happy” would suddenly repeat six times in up-tempo major, like Up With People crashing a wake, before returning to slow minor for the last line.

Listen to Carlo Gesualdo, The Mad Duke of Verona™, setting this actual text:

I die, alas, in my suffering,
And she who could give me life,
Alas, kills me and will not help me.
O! sorrowful fate


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Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover, then wrote mournful music for the rest of his life by way of apology. Nobody does stab-me-in-the-heart, throw-me-down-a-well sadness like the Mad Duke. But he’s also a late Renaissance madrigalist, bless his heart, which means he can’t resist showing what a very clever boy he is. Even in the sentence “she who could give me life KILLS me,” the word “life (vita) goes into perky major cartwheels for a few seconds (0:16-0:30) before plunging back into sighs on “O! sorrowful fate.” That kind of crazy-quilt has no relation to actual human emotion.

The Renaissance also loved complex polyphonic textures (several overlapping melodic lines at once, like the “vita” section above), which buggers the text, which guts the emotional impact.

This elevation of cleverness over emotional clarity started to grate on some influential patrons of the arts, who were pretty sure that the music of ancient Greece and Rome was simpler in texture (one melody over a subdued accompaniment) and more emotionally unified. Their only evidence was ancient written accounts of music dramas being interrupted by audience members wailing inconsolably and throwing themselves off parapets. So these 16th century patrons gathered composers and theorists to discuss the problem of “music today” and to plot a new movement, one that assured a more unified emotional expression and much more parapet diving. Sad music would be sad from stem to stern, and peaceful music peaceful, and joyful joyful.

And lo! the Doctrine of Affections was born.

It was an idea meant to improve the expression of emotion in music. Simplify textures so lyrics could be understood. Keep tempo and rhythm consistent. Composers would choose an emotion from a list — Descartes suggested admiration, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sorrow — and stick to it. Keys were assigned specific emotions (C major is “rejoicing,” D major is “warlike,” G minor is “kindness,” etc.). A catalog of bass lines was created, each reflecting a different emotion. These eight notes, for example

signified “peaceful contentment.” Repeat the bass line for a peaceful, contented piece:


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If you’ve been to a wedding, you probably know the rest.

Sadness, on the other hand, called for a bass line descending by scale steps (like white keys on the piano) or half steps (white and black keys) from the first note of the scale to the fifth. Called the lament bass, this descending line is like a silk thread tying the chords together, creating centuries of smooth, gorgeous harmony.

Three Examples of the “Scale Lament”

Here’s a bit of Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa (1620) with the repeating lament bass on scale steps.


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And a bit of Ray Charles using the same technique 330 years later:


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Even the Lord God his own damn self likes to wail over the lament bass:


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Four Examples of the “Chromatic Lament”

The chromatic lament uses all of the half steps (white and black keys) for even more emotional juice. Follow the pulsing notes in Vivaldi’s cello:


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…or Mary Poppins, of all things:


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Here is that same melting line in the brilliant “Butterflies and Hurricanes” by Muse:


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…and of course “Stairway to Heaven”:


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Radiohead’s Lament

Then there’s Radiohead.

A big part of my attraction to Radiohead is their wide spectrum of influences: Romantic harmony, New Orleans jazz, minimalism, punk rock, aleatory, non-Western — they reach into nearly every corner of the musical world. When the score for There Will Be Blood blew my hair back, and I thought I heard the influence of radical avant-gardist Krzysztof Penderecki in it, and then learned that Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood wrote that incredible score, and that he calls Penderecki his favorite composer…I thought, why not. That’s Radiohead.

So I wasn’t surprised when a beautiful lament bass shows up in one of my favorite Radiohead songs, Exit Music (for a Film). Here it is.


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The lament bass starts right on the voice entrance at 0:23. It’s subtle the first three times, the lowest line of the guitar, but still serves the purpose of a silk thread linking and guiding the harmonies. And the last time (3:21) the lament shouts right on through.

There is so much more to the song: the Picardy third (a major I in a minor key) that ends each verse; the simultaneous Mellotron choir and the modulation to Pluto at 1:27, then the smooth slide back to Earth; that guitar tremolo countermelody at 2:50.

For you four-pepper theorists, check out the Neapolitan moment. Deceptive cadence at 3:02, VI becomes V/♭II…then ♭II slides back to V (3:12-14), helped by that chromatic guitar line. Maybe my favorite Radiohead moment.

But it’s the lament bass that informs so much of the richness of this remarkable song. And at 3:21, it all comes together — Mellotron, tremolo, lament. Add the single melody over accompaniment, and it’s a perfect fit for the doctrine of affections — emotionally unified and effective from beginning to end.

I have seriously heard this a hundred times, and I’m going to listen again right now. That says something right there.

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Feature image by Allesandro Pautasso via Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Thumbnail by angela n. via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.