Bass guitar, upright bass, tuba, bassoon, and the far left keys on a piano are just a few overlooked instruments in music – they are all bass instruments, playing lower frequency notes in relation to the rest of the band.
In my article explaining why bass is hard to hear, it’s evident that the lower the frequency of a pitch, the harder it becomes for the human ear to hear. Most people are unaware of the cruciality of bass in music. If you’re thinking about learning bass, don’t let this worry you. You will rarely find a band that doesn’t need a bass player.
Simply put, bass is important in music and necessary in a band because it bridges the gap between treble (guitar) and percussion (drums), providing a rhythmic and harmonic function at the same time.
Despite the bass frequency’s hidden and subtle sound, it plays a crucial role in a piece of music. This post will explore why bass is so important in music and how important bass is in a band (spoiler alert, it is quite important. Essential, really).
Starting at the Beginning – What is Music?
This question might seem rudimentary, but it’s important to the conversation. Music is comprised of three main elements:
- Melody – The single-line phrase of notes on a staff that is usually recurring throughout a song.
- Rhythm – The placement of sounds in time.
- Harmony – The simultaneous occurrence of two or more tones.
Some melodic instruments include saxophone, flute, and harp, and a vocalist. Melody is usually the “singable” part of a song – like happy birthday or twinkle twinkle little star. What you’re singing is the melody.
In music, all instruments should be playing in time. But drums, marimba, and timpani are a few under the category of rhythmic instruments, which help drive the rhythm along.
Harmonic instruments would be your guitar, piano, or violin. Harmony can also be created by multiple instruments or voices, such as a symphony or a choir.
The unique aspect regarding bass is that it falls into two of these categories at once – rhythm and harmony.
Bass Plays Two Roles at Once
If you’re looking for an answer to the question of why bass is so important in music, first you should know what sets bass instruments apart from a drum kit or a guitar.
In a rock band, the bass guitar acts as a bridge between drums and guitar. The bass guitar can drive a rhythm like the drums while also playing pitch like a guitar. It’s the bassist’s responsibility to hold the band together in rhythm and harmony.
With that said, Bass is Extremely Powerful.
And with great power comes great responsibility. Low-frequency notes we often associate with strength and dominance. They’re also the fundamental part of what makes a chord; the lowest voice of a chord is what sets the foundation for harmony.
The Harmonic Function of Bass
The bass provides a reference point for all other higher frequencies played over it. When our brains process a chord, the emotional content of that chord stems from the lowest pitch – the bass note.
Changing the bass note can completely alter the feeling one gets upon hearing the chord. Harmonically, the bass provides a foundation that music is built upon.
The Rhythmic Function of Bass
Bass in music resonates with us because rhythm is naturally occurring – in nature and in our bodies.
Bass is harder to hear and easier to feel. Low-range frequencies produced by bass instruments cause resonance and vibrations otherwise difficult to recreate using drums or guitar. It’s these vibrations that get our feet tapping and deeply resonate with the consistent and repetitive rhythms we are familiar with, like a heartbeat.
A study conducted at McMaster University even found that between high-pitched and low-pitched musical rhythms, the ear is better at detecting when low-pitched frequencies are playing off time.
Does a Band Really Need a Bass Player?
Yes! Since low-frequency notes provide a foundation for harmony, resonate in our bodies, and lay down rhythms, bass in a band is a must-have.
If you’re at a live show and hear the keyboard player hit a wrong note, it might go largely unnoticed, whereas if the bass player were to make a mistake, everyone would notice the dissonance – the bass player is providing the musical context for the rest of the members.
Hear for Yourself
A song without bass would feel quite flat, empty, and lack depth. The backing tracks below have no bass line, and if you’re familiar with the songs, you’ll notice right away that something feels off.
Hear for yourself in this bass practice backing track of Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication
Under Pressure by Queen (which has a bass line nearly identical to Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby):
Hopefully, you can notice the empty, flat sound in these tracks.
There are plenty of songs – often in funk, metal, and pop music – which use a catchy bass line as their hook as a stylistic choice. In these cases, the bass is not only driving the rhythm and providing a fundamental harmonic pitch but also playing the role of a melodic instrument.
Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes without its iconic bass hook is a bit comical:
To Sum It All Up…
Bass is important in music because
- It bridges the gap between guitar and drums
- It provides a harmonic context and reference point
- It resonates with the rhythms occurring naturally in our bodies
- It supplements to the stability of a song
So whether you’re a bass player, thinking of playing bass, or trying to start a band, know that bass is not only essential but unique in its ability to play multiple roles. It’s the glue that holds everything together, whether the average person realizes its importance or not.