- We study the propagation of a bichromatic field in three-level and four-level media. In the case of a three-level medium, we consider the configuration and demonstrate that if the upper level is not empty there is a critical value for the low-frequency coherence such that below this threshold and for intense fields, coherent bleaching occurs. This implies a sharp reduction of the field absorption and the fluorescence emission whereas above this threshold a parametric instability takes place. It corresponds to an amplification of the field that does not need a population inversion between the optical transitions. Finally we prove that the field alone cannot create a low-frequency coherence exceeding this threshold. Therefore we analyze the double configuration involving a four-level medium in which the upper and lower pairs of atomic levels have a low-frequency separation while optical transitions take place between the two pairs of states. An intense bichromatic field that is resonant with one upper state and the lower levels and a weak bichromatic field resonant with the other upper state and the same two lower states are sent into the medium. We analyze the limit in which the low-frequency coherence created between the lower pair of states has a relaxation time which is large. Then there will be population trapping in the lower states leading to coherent bleaching if there is no inversion between the upper levels but there will be amplification if there is inversion between the upper levels. In this way amplification at the optical transitions without population inversion between these states is realized. 1990 The American Physical Society.