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Bass players actually the most important member of the band, according to science

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Why couldn’t the bassist get through the front door? He couldn't find the key and didn't know when to come in.

The plight of the poor bass player, the most maligned member of the rock ’n’ roll band. Of course there are the exceptions — Paul McCartney, Bootsy Collins, Sting, Flea, Geddy Lee, to name a few — but more often than not, bass players are typecast as the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals in the corner of the stage who don't know what key the song is in. But after being on the receiving end of the joke for far too long, science suggests that the bass player could actually be the most important member in the band, especially when it comes to the entire rhythm of the song.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., found that our perception of rhythm in music is heightened when we’re hearing lower-pitched notes. The bass notes always seem to fill the background of a song, while the more theatrical high notes take centre stage, which is one reason bass players are criminally overlooked. But it turns out it's the low notes that hold the entire song together, proving they play a role just as important as the words being sung.

To draw their conclusion, researchers hooked up electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to participants and monitored their brain signals while they listened to two piano notes at the same time — one high, one low. The notes were played at equal intervals, but occasionally, one of the two notes was played just 50 milliseconds earlier. More listeners consistently noticed the error when the low notes were out of synch.

Researchers also measured participants ability to tap their fingers to a random stream of notes and found that subjects were far better at adjusting speed for the low notes.

The takeaway? Our brains are better at recognizing the rhythm of a song if it occurs on the low end, which means that if a bass player was even slightly off key, more people would notice and the song would fall apart.

Something to think of the next time you're tempted to groan when the bass player steps up to do their solo. 



Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG