Science Suggests Bassists Are Among the Most Important Band Members

At gigs, we guitarists tend to walk around like we own the place—unless, of course, we actually do own the place, which is incredibly rare, since we are, after all, guitarists.

But think about it. We get to stand right up front and play ridiculously cool stuff; we get within 6 inches of the audience's noses, eyelashes and eyeballs, making sure we're close enough to melt faces, incite riots, etc.

Bassists, meanwhile, are often the most criminally overlooked and underappreciated members of almost every band.

However, there seems to be new scientific proof that bassists are actually one of the most vital members of bands. It turns out there are powerful neurological and structural reasons music needs bass.

Last year, researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, found that there's a reason bass lines tend to fill out the background of a song, leaving the theatrics to those higher-pitched instruments (you know, guitars and such). Brains are far better suited to establishing a tune's rhythmic feel if they occur in lower tones.

Laurel Trainor—lead author of the study—hooked up participants to an EEG to monitor brain activity as they heard simultaneous streams of two piano notes—one high-pitched, the other low. Every now and then, researchers played one of the notes fractions of a second too early. Participants were better at recognizing these errors if they occurred in the bass notes. The same study found that, if asked to tap their fingers to this unpredictable stream of notes, subjects were better at adjusting their tapping when the lower tones began to arrive early than they were if the same thing happened with higher tones.

Does this show how influential the bass is when it comes to setting the whole rhythmic feel of a song? Why yes, it seems to. We simply need that bottom end, folks.

As Robert Challoner wrote in his 1880 History of the Science and Art of Music, "The bass part ... is, in fact, the foundation upon which the melody rests and without which there could be no melody."

"You know, the piano player can play a C chord on the piano, but it's only a C chord if I play C on the bass. If I play something else, it's a totally different chord. For instance, an A," Sting told Singing Bassist. "So you control the harmony. If you are also a singer, you control the top—yes, I'm a control freak! So everybody performs within your parameters. So, as a bandleader, it's a very good position to be in."

Bassists also have an important role in establishing the harmonic and melodic direction of music. As our friend Challoner wrote in ancient times, "The bass part ... is, in fact, the foundation upon which the melody rests and without which there could be no melody."

Other research, this time via Northwestern University, has discovered that bass-heavy music is more effective at inspiring feelings of power and drive. Northwestern researchers had participants listen to pieces of music with altered bass levels.

"We chose to manipulate bass levels in music because existing literature suggests bass sound and voice are associated with dominance," Dennis Hsu, one of the study's authors, told Science Daily.

If you enjoy reading about bassists and that thing they do, head here.

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.