Most people conjure up any of a variety of thoughts when a song is heard. It might be a cherished memory from your youth, a romantic reminder of love, a flashback to a happy (or sad) time from the past … music and song play a huge part in our lives and we rarely ponder it beyond the memories it evokes. But it’s quite different for musicians.
Musicians listen to songs differently than those who do not play an instrument. As a musician, the ear immediately goes to specific instruments within the song itself, hearing a passage or phrase that supports the featured part of the song. If you’re a vocalist, you might hear the harmonies provided by the vocals, the spacing in the phrasing, where a breath is taken or any of the many intricacies that vocalists employ to get their unique sound.
Within popular music of this time, including rock and jazz and country, the backbone of the songs we hear and love emanate from the rhythms, and specifically, the bass. That thing that makes you nod your head when listening to a song you love? That’s the bass part. That “thump” you hear from far away when you’re walking to an outdoor concert, you know, that first sound of music you hear? The bass.
As a life-long professional bassist I always listened to a song based on the bass part, the rhythm, the arrangement, the other instruments and finally the lyrics, in that order. For all of those years I barely paid attention to the meaning of the song itself and let my emotions be driven by the rhythms I heard. It wasn’t until my wife of 35 years died and I met Sheila that the lyrics started to have meaning.
It makes me wonder about all of those years gone by where I might have missed great listening opportunities because I didn’t really “hear” the song the way the composer intended.
Songs have their own special qualities, with both the melody and the lyrics providing a story on their own. You can sing a song without any instruments at all and the song retains its appeal. But in nearly all cases, even those where no instruments are employed, the music is supported by a rhythm, and that rhythm beat is a function of the bass, whether you recognize it or not.
The next time you find yourself caught up in a song, be sure to give a thought of thanks to the bass player. That under-appreciated quiet member of the band, usually at the back of the stage, the one making you nod your head and tap your foot … the driving beat behind that song you love so much!