Neuroscientists study our love for deep bass sounds

July 1, 2014, McMaster University
Feel that bass: McMaster student Kristin Tonus tries on the electrode net at the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind. Director Laurel Trainor and colleagues have been studying why we appreciate strong bass rhythms in a song. Credit: ELAINE WHISKIN

Have you ever wondered why bass-range instruments tend to lay down musical rhythms, while instruments with a higher pitch often handle the melody?

According to new research from Laurel Trainor and colleagues at the McMaster Institute for Music and The Mind, this is no accident, but rather a result of the physiology of hearing.

In other words, when the bass is loud and rock solid, we have an easier time following along to the rhythm of a song.

During the experiment, Trainor's team played people high and low pitched tones at the same time. The tones were repeated in a sequence. They found that 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.

They measured electroencephalography (EEG) by placing sensors on the head and measuring electrical activity from the brain in response to the sounds. When an unexpected sound occurs—such as a tone that is earlier than it is expected to be—the brain response contains a spike referred to as the mismatch negativity, otherwise known as MMN. The MMN was larger when the lower tones were early compared to when the higher tones were early.

The researchers also found that when a different group of subjects tapped their fingers to these rhythms, they changed their tapping more in response to when the low tones were early, compared to when the high tones were early.

Finally, the researchers played their sounds through a computer model of the ear whose output represents the neural firing patterns in the auditory nerve.  They found that the auditory nerve responded more to the timing errors of the lower-pitched tones than to the errors of the higher-pitched . This suggests that the effect arises right in the ear.

These results explain why in musical systems around the world—from East Indian raga music to Indonesian gamelan music—the rhythm is carried in the lower-pitched instruments.

The findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore further: Scientists reveal how two tracks of music become one

More information: Superior time perception for lower musical pitch explains why bass-ranged instruments lay down musical rhythms, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1402039111

Related Stories

Scientists reveal how two tracks of music become one

May 21, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—How does a DJ mix two songs to make the beat seem common to both tracks? A successful DJ makes the transition between tracks appear seamless while a bad mix is instantly noticeable and results in a 'galloping ...

Single tone alerts brain to complete sound pattern

September 3, 2013
The processing of sound in the brain is more advanced than previously thought. When we hear a tone, our brain temporarily strengthens that tone but also any tones separated from it by one or more octaves. A research team ...

A new model explains why we perceive sounds when they are conducted through the skull

June 27, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—The ear is an important organ that allows us to perceive the world around us. However, very few of us are aware that not only the ear cup but also our skull bone can receive and conduct sounds. Tatjana ...

Sharp or flat: Gene clues into musical ability

March 11, 2014
Music surfaces frequently in the great Nature vs. Nurture debate: Why can someone be a virtuoso pianist yet their neighbour be a musical duffer? Does the answer lie in genes or upbringing?

Neuroscientists suggest perception of harmonicity, not beating underlies perception of dissonance

November 13, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers from the University of Montreal and New York University suggest in a paper they've had published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that the perception of harmonicity in ...

Recommended for you

Animal study connects fear behavior, rhythmic breathing, brain smell center

April 20, 2018
"Take a deep breath" is the mantra of every anxiety-reducing advice list ever written. And for good reason. There's increasing physiological evidence connecting breathing patterns with the brain regions that control mood ...

Mechanism behind neuron death in motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia discovered

April 20, 2018
Scientists have identified the molecular mechanism that leads to the death of neurons in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or motor neurone disease) and a common form of frontotemporal dementia.

When there's an audience, people's performance improves

April 20, 2018
Often, people think performing in front of others will make them mess up, but a new study led by a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist found the opposite: being watched makes people do better.

Signaling between neuron types found to instigate morphological changes during early neocortex development

April 20, 2018
A team of researchers from several institutions in Japan has found that developing neocortex neurons in mammals undergo a morphological transition from a multipolar shape to a bipolar shape due at least partially to signaling ...

MRI technique detects spinal cord changes in MS patients

April 20, 2018
A Vanderbilt University Medical Center-led research team has shown that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect changes in resting-state spinal cord function in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Gene variant increases empathy-driven fear in mice

April 20, 2018
Researchers at the Center for Cognition and Sociality, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), have just published as study in Neuron reporting a genetic variant that controls and increases empathy-driven fear in mice. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.