Medical Mysteries of Music

Who’s the Most Important Part of a Band? Science Says It’s the Bass Player

Many years ago, I read an interview with Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton. When asked why he chose that instrument, he replied that it was the perfect balance of melody, rhythm and percussion which meant that the bass formed the foundation of every good rock song. Turns out that Tom was also right from a scientific point of view.

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America has issued a study run by Laurel Trainor of McMaster in Hamilton, Ontario, that says listeners are more perceptive of bass frequencies than notes higher up on the scale. Called “Superior time perception for lower musical pitch explains why bass-ranged instruments lay down musical rhythms,” the team used EEG measurements as people listened to a variety of piano notes. From Mental Floss:

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.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38156 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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