When Led Zeppelin's bassist John Paul Jones was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, he made a classic bass joke. "Thank you to my friends for finally remembering my phone number," he said, looking over at the rest of the band.
Like any good joke, there's some truth to it: Bassists are criminally overlooked and underappreciated members of most every band. Yet there's scientific proof that bassists are actually one of the most vital members of any band. There are powerful neurological and structural reasons why our music needs bass. It's time we started treating bassists with the respect they deserve.
Holding it down. Last year, researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, found that there's a reason why bass lines tend to fill out the background of a song, leaving the theatrics to higher-pitched instruments. Our brains are far better suited to establishing a song's rhythmic feel if they occur in lower tones.
Laurel Trainor, the study's lead author, hooked up participants to an EEG to monitor brain activity while they heard simultaneous streams of two piano notes — one high-pitched, the other low-pitched. Every so often researchers played one of the notes fractions of a second too early. Participants were far better at recognizing these errors if they occurred in the bass notes. That same study also found that, if asked to tap their fingers along to this unpredictable stream of notes, subjects were much better at adjusting their tapping when the lower tones began to arrive early than they were if the same thing happened with the higher tones.
This shows just how influential a bass is in setting the whole rhythmic feel of a song. If we didn't have some stoic individual holding down the low end, we all might be very lost in the music.
Harmonic importance. Bassists also have an important role in establishing the harmonic and melodic direction of music. 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."
The bass often defines the chords that set a song's melody in context. The bass note doesn't always define the chord's root, but it frequently commands that role. Sting, one of the world's most celebrated and richest bassists, absolutely relishes the harmonic control of the bass.
"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."
The sound of power. Other research out of Northwestern University has found that bass-heavy music is far more effective at inspiring feelings of power and drive in listeners. To discover that, they had participants listen to pieces of music with altered bass levels.
"We chose to manipulate bass levels in music because existing literature suggests that bass sound and voice are associated with dominance," Dennis Hsu, one of the study's authors, told Science Daily. Sure enough, those that listened to music with heavy bass reported more feelings of power. Participants also chose more power-related words on a word completion test aiming to assess implicit, or unconscious, feelings of power.
In defense of the bass: Bass may often fit into the background of our music, but it's absolutely fundamental to the shape and structure of our favorite songs. And it doesn't preclude songwriting either: Several of the greatest songwriters of all time were primarily bassists — Paul McCartney, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Charles Mingus.
Thundercat, an extraordinarily influential hip-hop bassist and a vital contributor to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, said it best: "I decided to take it as far as it could go and to use my skill as a tool. You don't have to just hit nails with hammers, you know; you can use a hammer to beat somebody's brains in, to make armor or break a car window," he told Interview. "You can do all kinds of things with your instrument outside of its surface purpose."
Bass is, as always, so much more than it appears. It deserves its credit.