Bass players are the butt of many a musician joke. ("Did you hear about the bassist who was so out of tune his band noticed?") Well, guess what, haters: scientists have found that bassists are the musical key to bandmates and audiences alike being able to keep the beat.
Last year, researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, discovered that our brains are wired to respond to rhythms at low tones—just like the ones bassists produce. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Led by Laurel Trainor, the team used electroencephalography (commonly referred to as an EEG) to watch brain activity in people as they listened to simultaneous piano notes. One note was high pitched and the other low pitched, as with bass notes. Sometimes the notes would be played out of synch, with one sound just slightly—50 milliseconds—earlier. The researchers wanted to know if the subjects could spot the difference at such minute timescales. It turns out they could.
A flag went up in the form of a mismatch negativity response (or change in electrical brain activity) in the auditory cortex about 120–250 milliseconds after the early note was played. More importantly, these responses were more pronounced when the low-pitched note was off as opposed to the high-pitched one. Essentially, subjects were better at noticing when low-pitch notes were off beat.
Which is to say, we might all feel quite adrift without the low, steady hand of the bassist. They might not be the showy ones, but we’re attuned to their rhythms in powerful ways. The study helps to explain why rhythm in music across cultures is almost always low pitched while melody is high pitched.
An interesting note: the mismatch negativity response is not dependent on a listener consciously recognizing the rogue notes. Those in the study watched a silent film while the sounds played and were told not to pay attention to them. That means that even if we think we have no sense of rhythm, our brains might be more aware than we think.
Another study out of Northwestern University gave the bassist another boost. They found that music with a lot of bass makes us feel more powerful and has consequences like being able to see the big picture, feel a greater sense of control in social events, and have a sense of eagerness in competitive interactions.
To all the bassists whose names I never learned: Sorry for not appreciating you more, and thanks for making me feel empowered all these years.