Addicted to bass

by Gautam Raja

If you could magically become a talented member of a rock band, what role would you pick? Lead guitarist? Vocalist? Drummer? When I was 17, I’d almost certainly have picked lead guitarist. But today, many years older, I know what I’d rather be: the bass guitarist.

Bass playing’s mystery draws me in, but I also like its bedrock nature—low profile, yet essential. But why are bass players needed in the first place? I understand that they often form the tonal and rhythmic centre of the band, but why do we as humans so enjoy music when it covers the whole frequency range, from the low notes of the thickest string on a double bass, to the high-frequency shimmer of a cymbal?

One possible explanation is that as omnivores, we are instinctively drawn to complexity. Since we need a variety of foods to stay healthy, it makes sense that we quickly bore of repetition or “one note” experiences, and are drawn to melanges of flavours. In fact both taste and smell are commonly broken down in the language of sound, with both perfumers and chefs referring to low or base notes and top or high notes. Both scents and dishes are built across frequency ranges in much the same way—with a strong base of low notes, a good balanced heart of middle notes and dashes of high notes.

A perfume without musk, a dish without umami, and a band without bass—these would all be thin to our senses. But why? With scents, why does the real pleasure come after the lemon or bergamont have dissipated and the sandalwood or vetiver take over? Why do we wait anxiously for what electronic dance music enthusiasts call the “bass drop”, the point where the lows kick in and the beat really starts going?

A scientific study has found that our brains respond to rhythm better with lower frequency tones, which explains the preponderance of deep-voiced time-keeping instruments across cultures. But why we respond to rhythm at all seems to remain shrouded.

Could it be that attention to rhythm means we were better able to run in synchronicity on the hunt, since the sound of feet on the ground is often of a low frequency? That way, as we thump in unison, we’re more likely to hear other sounds in the quieter moments between steps. In fact, jazz—the Western music genre with clear ancient connections—often features a style known as the “walking bassline”, said to closely resemble the movement of two feet.

This doesn’t explain our love for the darker, baser scents and flavours though. Is it simply that protein-rich foods offer these tastes and they are the most necessary for life? But in a way, these are also the tastes, smells and sounds of death. The smell of organic decay is overwhelmingly base and heavy. Aurally, low frequencies require less energy than high, they are enroute to darkness. A creature alive and in pain will shriek, but a creature near death and in pain will groan.

I know. It’s a long leap of perhaps desperate overthinking to connect the work of Ron Carter or Jack Bruce or Flea to mortality; that going to Best Buy for a subwoofer to round out the sound of your home theatre system is a nod to death.

But given how the colours from violet to red blend to make lifegiving sunlight, perhaps it’s not surprising we crave experiences that represent entire spectra. Night and day, good and evil, life and death… none of these have meaning without the near infinite shades of possibility they have between them.

First published in Gulf News, December 23, 2014