Friday, October 30, 2015

The Bass is the Place

Trainor and her colleagues have recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that perceptions of time are much more acute at lower registers, while our ability to distinguish changes in pitch gets much better in the upper ranges, which is why, writes Nature, “saxophonists and lead guitarists often have solos at a squealing register,” and why bassists tend to play fewer notes. (These findings seem consistent with the physics of sound waves.) To reach their conclusions, Trainer and her team “played people high and low pitched notes at the same time.” Participants were hooked up to an electroencephalogram that measured brain activity in response to the sounds. The psychologists “found that the brain was better at detecting when the lower tone occurred 50 MS too soon compared to when the higher tone occurred 50 MS too soon.”

The study’s title perfectly summarizes the team’s findings: “Superior time perception for lower musical pitch explains why bass-ranged instruments lay down musical rhythms.” In other words, “there is a psychological basis,” says Trainor, “for why we create music the way we do. Virtually all people will respond more to the beat when it is carried by lower-pitched instruments.”

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