Across cultures, wherever you go in the world, music seems to retain the same basic structure. Melodies are generally carried along by higher-pitched instruments like flutes or violins, while the timpani, double bass and other low register instruments provide rhythm and harmonies. This status quo has never really been challenged: perhaps players of lower register instruments, tired of their plodding bass lines, only have science to blame.
A study recently published by Laurel Trainor of McMaster University in Canada indicates that this pan-cultural trend could be due to the way our ears are engineered. By measuring electrical brain activity, researchers noticed a greater awareness of miniscule glitches in the timing of a beat at lower pitches, even when subjects were instructed to pay no attention to background rhythm and focus on a (silent) film. The auditory cortex in the brain lit up if a tiny error in the timing was detected – and the success rate of this was much lower when the rhythm was at a higher pitch. Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive scientist from the University of Vienna endorsed the study as providing “a very plausible hypothesis for why bass parts play such a crucial role in rhythm perception”. However, he then points out, when a loud thumping bass is played listeners literally feel the beat as it resonates through their bodies. Could this be a more obvious explanation? “I’ve heard that when deaf people dance they turn up the bass and play it very loud and can literally ‘feel the beat’ via torso-based resonance”, he says. Many of us, I am sure, can relate to this too.
At the other end of the scale, our ears are capable of much more sensitive pitch recognition higher up the register. Trainor also carried out a study using the same techniques to assess peoples’ pitch recognition when exposed to the same series of notes at a higher or lower register. One note was played wrong (at random, either in-key or out-of-key), and brain activity showed that this rarely went unnoticed when the pitch was high enough. Presumably, then, this is why humanity seems to consistently create its music layered in this way.
It would seem that if you want your turn in the limelight with a flashy solo, you are much better off taking up the violin rather than a bass guitar.