If you really knew me, you would know that a huge slice of my life is devoted to music. To me, music is another language, another culture, and another lifestyle. There’s so many things you can do with music: play, listen, learn, write, and produce. You can even relate to, dance and communicate with, or supplement action-packed movie scenes with music. The possibilities with music are endless. That’s why I decided on pursuing a minor in music – while I wanted to mainly focus on neuroscience and pre-med, there was no way I was just going to stop my progression of music.
A little more than one week remains in our Parisian stay, and our main objective this week was to keep cool in the immense heat. However, the heat didn’t keep me from going out on June 21, 2017.
On this day, France celebrated “Fête de la Musique,” or “Music Day.” I couldn’t believe it – it was a whole day devoted to making music. A group of us went out to explore and we found our first venue at Parc Montsouris where a DJ was set up in a TREE playing reggae music. Afterwards, we ventured towards Denfert Rochereau, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Latin Quarter to see tons of bands playing music wherever we turned. Now whenever I listen to music, I pay a lot of attention to each instrument/voice and their role in creating the structure and musicality of the song. So when listening to these French bands, the one instrument/voice I particularly listened for was the bass.
Whether it’s the electric bass guitar of a rock band, a tuba in a wind ensemble, an upright bass in a jazz band, or the electronic 808 bass lines that can blow out your speakers heard in many chart-topping songs today, having a bass is critical when creating music. The bass lays a tonic and rhythmic foundation for the other instruments/voices to play off of. Without the bass, the music would fall apart.
To prove to you just how important the bass is, I found a study by Hove et al. (2014) that looked into how our brain detects lower musical pitches as a foundation for musical rhythm. The researchers repeatedly played low-pitched (G3) and high-pitched (B-flat4) piano tones every 500 ms, but the catch is that 10% of the time, the tone would be played 50 ms too early. Subjects were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which detects electrical signals in your brain using metal electrodes attached to your head, and were tasked to tap their finger to the rhythm of the piano tones. With the EEG, the researchers looked for mismatch negativity (MMN) amplitudes, which are electrical responses set off by the auditory cortex (a brain region that processes auditory information) whenever it detects something unexpected when listening to a stream of sounds (Picton et al., 2000).
Results showed that these MMN amplitudes were greater when the subjects heard the early low-pitched tone than when they heard the early high-pitched tone. When finger tapping, subjects shifted the timing of their taps significantly more after hearing the early low-pitched tone than when the early high-pitched tone was heard. These results support the idea that: 1. our brain, at the auditory cortex, is better at processing the timing of lower-pitched tones than higher-pitched tones, and that 2. we are better at synchronizing body movements to the rhythms we hear when listening to lower-pitched tones than higher-pitched tones (Hove et al., 2014).
In this study, I believe it may have been noteworthy (no pun intended) to also include piano tones that are played 50 ms too late as well. This could show whether our brain can tell a difference in detecting an early or late beat in these low-pitched tones. Regardless, I really appreciated the musical application of their study. For example, they related these findings to the importance of bass notes in complex rhythms, such as ragtime piano syncopation (off-beats) or waltzes played in segments of 3 beats. This study shows us the relevance of bass in music and its importance in rhythmically keeping all the other aspects of a song together as one unit of sound. So whether it’s the music heard around every corner in Paris during “Fête de la Musique” or the heavy EDM music I just casually listen to back at home, you’ll probably see me grooving, especially to the bass of the music.
Hove MJ, Marie C, Bruce IC, Trainer LJ (2014) Superior time perception for lower musical pitch explains why bass-ranged instruments lay down musical rhythms. PNAS 111(28): 10383-10388.
Picton TW, Alain C, Otten L, Ritter W, Achim A (2000) Mismatch negativity: Different water in the same river. Audiol Neurootol 5(3-4): 111-139.
Pictures of the DJ and drumming were personally taken.
The EEG and auditory cortex pictures are credited to Creative Commons.