The Neuroscience of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instruments Are Fundamental to Music

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Pho­to by Sebas­ti­aan term Burg via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

At the low­er range of hear­ing, it’s said humans can hear sound down to about 20 Hz, beneath which we encounter a murky son­ic realm called “infra­sound,” the world of ele­phant and mole hear­ing. But while we may not hear those low­est fre­quen­cies, we feel them in our bod­ies, as we do many sounds in the low­er fre­quen­cy ranges—those that tend to dis­ap­pear when pumped through tin­ny ear­buds or shop­ping mall speak­ers. Since bass sounds don’t reach our ears with the same excit­ed ener­gy as the high fre­quen­cy sounds of, say, trum­pets or wail­ing gui­tars, we’ve tend­ed to dis­miss the instruments—and players—who hold down the low end (know any famous tuba play­ers?).

In most pop­u­lar music, bass play­ers don’t get near­ly enough credit—even when the bass pro­vides a song’s essen­tial hook. As Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones joked at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induc­tion cer­e­mo­ny in 1995, “thank you to my friends for remem­ber­ing my phone num­ber.” And yet, writes Tom Barnes at Mic, “there’s sci­en­tif­ic proof that bassists are actu­al­ly one of the most vital mem­bers of any band…. It’s time we start­ed treat­ing bassists with the respect they deserve.” Research into the crit­i­cal impor­tance of low fre­quen­cy sound explains why bass instru­ments most­ly play rhythm parts and leave the fan­cy melod­ic noodling to instru­ments in the upper range. The phe­nom­e­non is not spe­cif­ic to rock, funk, jazz, dance, or hip hop. “Music in diverse cul­tures is com­posed this way,” says psy­chol­o­gist Lau­rel Train­or, direc­tor of the McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Insti­tute for Music and the Mind, “from clas­si­cal East Indi­an music to Game­lan music of Java and Bali, sug­gest­ing an innate ori­gin.”

Train­or and her col­leagues have recent­ly pub­lished a study in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences sug­gest­ing that per­cep­tions of time are much more acute at low­er reg­is­ters, while our abil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish changes in pitch gets much bet­ter in the upper ranges, which is why, writes Nature, “sax­o­phon­ists and lead gui­tarists often have solos at a squeal­ing reg­is­ter,” and why bassists tend to play few­er notes. (These find­ings seem con­sis­tent with the physics of sound waves.) To reach their con­clu­sions, Train­er and her team “played peo­ple high and low pitched notes at the same time.” Par­tic­i­pants were hooked up to an elec­troen­cephalo­gram that mea­sured brain activ­i­ty in response to the sounds. The psy­chol­o­gists “found that the brain was bet­ter at detect­ing when the low­er tone occurred 50 MS too soon com­pared to when the high­er tone occurred 50 MS too soon.”

The study’s title per­fect­ly sum­ma­rizes the team’s find­ings: “Supe­ri­or time per­cep­tion for low­er musi­cal pitch explains why bass-ranged instru­ments lay down musi­cal rhythms.” In oth­er words, “there is a psy­cho­log­i­cal basis,” says Train­or, “for why we cre­ate music the way we do. Vir­tu­al­ly all peo­ple will respond more to the beat when it is car­ried by low­er-pitched instru­ments.” Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Tecum­seh Fitch has pro­nounced Train­or and her co-authors’ study a “plau­si­ble hypoth­e­sis for why bass parts play such a cru­cial role in rhythm per­cep­tion.” He also adds, writes Nature:

For loud­er, deep­er bass notes than those used in these tests, peo­ple might also feel the res­o­nance in their bod­ies, not just hear it in their ears, help­ing us to keep rhythm. For exam­ple, when deaf peo­ple dance they might turn up the bass and play it very loud, he says, so that “they can lit­er­al­ly ‘feel the beat’ via tor­so-based res­o­nance.”

Painful­ly awk­ward rev­el­ers at wed­dings, on cruise ships, at high school reunions—they just can’t help it. Maybe even this danc­ing owl can’t help it. Some of us keep time bet­ter than oth­ers, but most of us feel and respond phys­i­cal­ly to low-fre­quen­cy rhythms.

Bass instru­ments don’t only keep time; they also play a key role in a song’s har­mon­ic and melod­ic struc­ture. In 1880, an aca­d­e­m­ic music text­book informed its read­ers that “the bass part… is, in fact, the foun­da­tion upon which the melody rests and with­out which there could be no melody.” As true as this was at the time—-when acoustic pre­cur­sors to elec­tric bass, syn­the­siz­ers, and sub-bass ampli­fi­ca­tion pro­vid­ed the low end—it’s just as true now. And bass parts often define the root note of a chord, regard­less of what oth­er instru­ments are doing. As a bass play­er, notes Sting, “you con­trol the har­mo­ny,” as well as anchor­ing the melody. It seems the impor­tance of rhythm play­ers, though over­looked in much pop­u­lar appre­ci­a­tion of music, can­not be over­stat­ed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Drums & Bass Make the Song: Iso­lat­ed Tracks from Led Zep­pelin, Rush, The Pix­ies, The Bea­t­les to Roy­al Blood

Hear Iso­lat­ed Tracks From Five Great Rock Bassists: McCart­ney, Sting, Dea­con, Jones & Lee

The Sto­ry of the Bass: New Video Gives Us 500 Years of Music His­to­ry in 8 Min­utes

7 Female Bass Play­ers Who Helped Shape Mod­ern Music: Kim Gor­don, Tina Wey­mouth, Kim Deal & More

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness



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Comments (13)
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  • Adarsh says:

    Regard­ing that danc­ing owl link, it might just be doing it to max­i­mize its depth per­cep­tion of its vision than respond to the music.

  • yab10 says:

    peo­ple who don’t know about the impor­tance of bass don’t know any­thing about music

  • says:

    I know a famous tuba play­er:

  • Bob says:

    Well Yeah

  • Funky Funkmaster says:

    The basic foun­da­tion of bass is the foun­da­tion­al instru­ment which is basic to all music. Bass, that is.

  • Brian Imig says:

    One must con­sid­er Chris Squire & Eber­hard Weber first and fore­most here.

  • David Newland says:

    John Paul Jones’ com­ments had noth­ing to do with him being a bass play­er. They were in ref­er­ence to the fact that Page and Plant had teamed up numer­ous times with­out includ­ing him.

    Also, stud­ies that sim­ply reit­er­ate what we all know? Not news.

  • simon says:

    Actu­al­ly, the first para­graph is fac­tu­al­ly incor­rect. Humans can hear below 20Hz. It’s just that at the time the orig­i­nal exper­i­ments were car­ried out to deter­mine the range of human hear­ing, the equip­ment used could not pro­duce loud enough tones below 20Hz for humans to hear. This has then stayed in even sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture to this day, despite mod­ern exper­i­ments prov­ing it wrong. With regards to the ludi­crous com­ment that we can’t hear below 40–60Hz and instead just feel it, that is just incom­pe­tent jour­nal­ism! What is true is that many mod­ern sound sys­tem loud­speak­ers, like those on cheap sterols and lap­tops, can’t pro­duce low fre­quen­cy sound. If some­one starts an arti­cle show­ing com­plete igno­rance of the sub­ject mat­ter, it is dif­fi­cult to take any­thing they say seri­ous­ly. There are so many untrue myths and pho­ny pseu­do sci­ence in this arti­cle that I might use it as an exam­ple of how jour­nal­ists abuse sci­ence in their writ­ing.

  • Karl Kaiser says:

    This arti­cle and the study behind it are embar­rass­ing­ly sim­plis­tic. They treat obvi­ous expe­ri­ences like “feel­ing bass” as intel­lec­tu­al insights, yet they are obliv­i­ous of impor­tant rela­tion­ships between acoustics, musi­cal fre­quen­cy (“pitch”) and the psy­cho acoustics of pitch per­cep­tion, all of which bear on their con­clu­sions. They should have con­sult­ed with experts in sound pro­duc­tion and acoustics.

  • Calvin says:

    If the Drums is the Heart of a Band the Bass is the Soul. Togeth­er they are the Rhythm Sec­tion and the Back­bone of a band

  • Tom Callens says:

    I was think­ing the same about the qual­i­ty of jour­nal­ism dis­played here­in. Thanks for voic­ing this.

  • Contrabassist says:

    The idea that the bass is fun­da­men­tal to melody is dis­proved in our own musi­cal tra­di­tion. Today we lay out chords first (roots=bass), then melody. It was the oth­er way around for a long time, from Gre­go­ri­an chant to the 19th cen­tu­ry or so.

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