We all know that bass has an uncanny power to move us, to make us feel like we’re soaring into another plane of existence, or at least to get us up and dancing. As hip-hop and dance propagate and subwoofers abound, scientists have started studying the powerful effects that low frequencies have on our minds–and finding surprising results. Here, we use Jamie xx’s body-moving work as a prism to examine them.
It’s a quarter of an hour into Jamie xx’s DJ set recorded at a party in Reykjavik in June 2017. He’s closing out the night but it’s summer in Iceland so the sky is still bright as day outside. Clusters of synthesizer notes bubble out of the speakers swirling around each other in washes of delay, gathering layer after layer of twinkling sound up into a cloud of ambient electronic bliss radiating the same kind of manic energy that sparks off on nights when the sun never sets. Then from out of nowhere, so subtle that you might not notice it at first, a beat builds. First a pulsing hi hat, then a thumping kick, then finally, after what feels like an eternity of waiting, a deep, rib-rattling bass line that pulls everything together and sends the track spiraling into the sun-streaked Arctic stratosphere.
When we talk about dance music we tend to speak in the language of elevation. We say that tracks “lift off” and “take flight,” or that a night at the club is “transcendental.” And the number of songs across every style inside the genre, from disco to house to EDM, promising to take you higher or lift you into the heavens, probably can’t be counted.
That’s not just poetry at work. There’s actually a scientific explanation for why dance music sends our minds skyward. In 2014 a researcher at Northwestern University conducted a study into the effects of music on our emotional state. Participants were played short segments of “musical selections that generated subjective feelings of power”–or in other words music that you’d play to pump yourself up–either with a bass line or without, then were asked to rate their emotional response and were given a word test to perform. The listeners reported feeling more powerful when they heard the low end. And other studies prove that music can actually have a significant effect on our cognitive function. Music in general gets our brains pumping, and bass is the boost that sends our minds to a higher level.
Our connection with low end frequencies started before we were born. The first thing we ever heard was our mother’s heartbeat reverberating through the amniotic fluid we floated in. Liquid is a natural audio filter, where big, deep sound waves can get through but higher frequencies die out, which is why if you dunk your head underwater at a pool party the music’s melody might drop out but you’ll still hear the beat. Which means before we had vision or thoughts or memories, we had bass.
No wonder our brains are so attuned to it. Studies show that our brains are hardwired to lock in on bass frequencies in ways that they simply don’t with higher pitches. In another neuroscientific study, researchers played subjects synchronized patterns of high and low piano notes. Most of the time the notes were lined up exactly, but every once in a while one note would come slightly ahead of the beat. Subjects noticed the difference more often when it was the low note playing faster, suggesting that we’re more sensitive in our perception of bass notes–they could tell the difference when notes came just 50 milliseconds early. During the same study researchers used a computer model of the human ear to study how it senses sound and came to the conclusion that the shape of our ears may be optimized to pick up low end easier.
Once you know how bass can affect our moods and minds, looking at Jamie xx’s work takes on another whole dimension. Listening back through his albums you can pick out little moments–the deep, round pulses of low end that bump through the hazy atmosphere of “Hold Tight,” the punchy, rolling funk line that supports his club mainstay “There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”–that light up the parts of our brains that are tuned to react to bass frequencies with the accuracy of an engineer or a surgeon.
Not that he has any of this in mind when he’s programming a beat or selecting a DJ set. (Especially since these research results are newer than most of his work.) Like our deep-brain response to hearing a great bass line, composing one is a process that draws a lot on mental responses that happen below the surface of consciousness, something you can feel before your thinking mind catches up. The things scientists are learning about how our brains respond to bass–that it makes us feel powerful and cause us to set our internal metronomes to it–is simply proving what DJs and beat makers figured out by intuition generations ago. Another recent study showed that bass not only sets the tempo when we dance, but that low frequencies are more likely to make subjects move their bodies than high ones. That’s something Jamie xx already knows quite well.