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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