If you’re a musician you probably know that what makes a bass player or drummer great is their timing. Science now tells us why that is, as well as why we build songs from the rhythm section us as well.
A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that perception of time is much more acute at lower registers, and those that play lower frequency instruments tend to have superior timing. That said, just about everyone responds to the beat of a low-frequency instrument, which is probably why we love the kick drum so much.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers “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 50ms too soon compared to when the higher tone occurred 50ms too soon.”
The researchers also found in their computer models of the inner ear that it’s the cochlea that’s more sensitive to changes in rhythms that are made up of lower tones. It also found that for some people with poor rhythm, the problems may occur in cochlea of the ear. At the same time, timing and rhythm are subsequently processed in many different cortical and sub-cortical areas of the brain, so their problems could be in any of these regions as well.
The researchers note that, as all musicians know, higher-pitched sounds can also contribute to rhythms. “Indeed, high-pitched instruments can carry important rhythmic aspects — for example, in jazz, higher-pitched instruments often add rhythmic interest by playing off the beat, so the rhythm is an interaction between different instruments,” said study co-author Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind and a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.
So there you have it. Science has proven what musicians have known all along. The lower frequency instruments carry the rhythm section, great drummers and bass players have great timing, and higher pitched instruments also create rhythms. We needed a study for that?