“Baba, can you hear the baseline?” I remember Kabir, our son, asking me this question for the first time 4-5 years ago. There was a rock song being played in our living room. I was able to recognize the vocals, a guitar and the drums. Apparently none of these was the baseline. And I couldn’t hear one even after Kabir tried his best to point to it. Over the past few years not only did I begin to appreciate the baseline in music but also in life. What is this baseline? And, could this baseline-test be useful to you? Let’s explore in this article.
When Kabir was in 7th or 8th grade (now he is in 12th) he got interested in base guitar. Until then I didn’t know what it meant (I knew acoustic guitar). So we got him one and I slowly came to know what a baseline sounds like. I learnt that it is an important link between the melody and the rhythm. And sometimes composers start by laying out the baseline as a foundation track. Over the years, he got an opportunity to play as a bassist in an amateur band and we would try to recognize the baseline in the show – sometimes with success and sometimes without. When Kabir practiced some solo pieces, we recognized it sounded similar to the interludes in the TV show “Seinfeld”.
Then I looked at the music I am more familiar with – Indian classical music. And I realized that the drone (Tanpura) which mostly plays two notes (base note and the fifth note) acts as a baseline or a reference line for the music. Looks like baseline is there in most music forms whether it is Jazz, Western classical or even Bollywood numbers. Then why do I find it hard to hear it? Because my ears are trained to follow the melody, drums etc. – essentially things which are in the foreground. Baseline is mostly in the background. And so much of our attention is grabbed by the foreground that very little is left for the background. However, once we start paying attention to the background, we begin to hear it.
Now, let’s extend this baseline test to life in general. As I type this article on my laptop, I can hear a few kids playing outside, birds chirping, honking of cars and our apartment’s Genset making a Grrrrrr sound (Power outage is a routine stuff in Bangalore). Most of these sounds are part of the background and I am not aware of them when the attention is completely hijacked by the thought process.
When I sit in the dining area, there are two sounds which I can hear only when things are quiet – both in the room and inside my head. One is the humming of the refrigerator. And two, the ticking of a small clock. What is the ultimate baseline test? To check whether you can hear your own breathing. It is very soft. But sometimes, perhaps at night when I am lying down in the bed, I can hear it.
Why is the baseline test useful? Because it indicates whether the attention is completely taken up by thought process or not. And that leftover attention holds the key to bringing sanity in life. It has the potential to see the irrationality or wastefulness of the thought process.
When do you apply the baseline test? Well, whenever you can steal a moment. For example, when you are about to start your meal, you can take a moment to see what you can hear. When you are about to start a meeting in the office or about start your car or scooty or when you are taking a walk etc. Perhaps you will figure out your own moments of taking baseline-test.
From time to time, ask yourself, “Can I hear the baseline?”