The Low End Theory

The Low End Theory

“…But something at the root
More urgent than that urge
Bids two true leaves emerge
And now, the plant resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe
Takes aim at all the sky
And starts to ramify…”

          • Richard Wilbur

I’ll aim to tell you four secrets. Four mysteries.
The first is, more or less, what A Tribe Called Quest once referred to as
‘The Low End Theory’.
However, it was the professor of my sophomore year piano class in
undergrad who really ushered me into the concept.

Mystery Secret #1?

She said musical chords are like plants.
The harmony notes are what you hear. The ‘leaves’, in a sense.
The bass note is the what you feel. The root.
And the root – the low end – is what ultimately defines the nature of the listener’s experience of a chord.  As a newly-emerging (and still very green) bassist, this redefined my entire life’s landscape.  The ‘what’ of this concept (the math) is logical enough. So is the ‘how’ of it (technique, execution).
But the ‘why’? Far more abstract.

Each possible bass note (root) produces a very particular feeling,
and will cause the leaves to change color. The question then is what color – what emotion – do you want to evoke? How will this root shape the plant? How will this plant’s ramifications shape the garden? How will this garden’s repercussions shape nature? How will nature shape the universe?

Consequently, many songwriters often work from the bottom up.
From the low end.

Mystery Secret # 2?

 In much of composed music, the bass note is the root. And the sheet music is the ‘end all’. The end of the conversation – in theory, at least.
In a lot of improvised music, the bass player is the root. The sheet music is simply the seed – the ‘be all’.
The beginning of the conversation.

Contrary to popular opinion, Improvisation is not chaos.
It has its own math, methods, structures, and techniques. The roots
are solid and fluid – at the same time. The chords are simply guideposts. Less like commandments, more like principles.
Each player is self-defined – in theory, at least.
The composition (the garden) is largely undefined – at first. The tribe gives the song its shape and identity through its choices together.

The bass player must choose a root in every new moment, as the song is going along – while the rest of the band is simultaneously branching out (emerging) directly from each choice.
This requires us bass players to talk while we’re listening.
Sometimes listening – and responding – to the commerce of 6 or 7 voices at the same time. Hoping our bandmates all ‘feel’ us.
Knowing that the feel of the music rests on our roots.
Ironically, the great majority of bassists prefer to be underground. With our ‘low ends’ (our bottoms) planted anonymously in the shadows.
Most of us are happy to be hidden. Mysteriously drawing in the life force from life’s source in every new quest. We have no urge to emerge.
It’s just not in our nature.

Mystery Secret #3?   

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been at UUCC on a two-service
Sunday and sat through both worship services?
Keep your hand raised if both services felt exactly the same?
This is the great mystery of worship. Of life. Of nature. Of the universe.

The 9am and 11am services almost never feel the same. They should, in theory. But even when all the players, compositions, and elements of the Order of Service are identical – the services unfold differently. Oft times, they are parallel universes – almost unrecognizable to each other.
The same piece of music is somehow longer – or shorter. A child asks a question in the Time For All Ages that takes the conversation down an unexpected rabbit hole. A line in your sermon gets a laugh at 11am that you didn’t get at 9am.
Or vice versa.

The same worship leaders are very different people at 11am than we were at 9am. For better or for worse, our energy has shifted. We are more rested – or more restless. We’ve eaten and had coffee. Or we’re now hungry – and need coffee.
The sky (the weather) is different at 11. The 11am choir is different.
Different bottoms are now resting on the same sanctuary chairs. A brand new room is blooming at 11. Different faces, different energy. Life simply will not stand still.
The universe is always improvising.

The nature of ministry is much like bass-playing. Being the root. Aiming for the highest good from the low end. Letting a few hundred souls rest upon your roots – especially in their low times.

In ministry, it would behoove one to embrace this mystery.
Lest all the constant shapeshifting bring you misery.

Mystery Secret #4?

 When I am leading music in worship (and everywhere else), I rest fairly heavily upon the root of mystery. I am purposefully vague with my players about how songs are going to begin or end. I am intentional about leaving much of the landscape undefined.
I don’t want my tribe to think – not in the moment.
I want them to feel.

I often say something like –  “…I’ll be the root (I’ll keep everything from growing too wildly). You all just… stretch out. Be available to the energy in you, in us, and in the room…”
That uncertainty strongly urges each player to self-define. To listen more intently, and play more honestly – some, out of sheer fear of the doom of failure.
And I like that fear. It’s authentic. True leaves often emerge
from that primal urgency.

Some of you in the sanctuary sense this lowdown, and you lean in a little closer – because you don’t quite know exactly how it’s going to go either. But you can feel something in your root – the seed’s inner urge. And you wonder what might emerge.
I then breathe in your wondering energy, and breathe out new roots. The other players breathe in those new roots, and we breathe out new plants together that shift the garden’s shape.
You all in the sanctuary breathe in those new gardens while simultaneously breathing new wonder back into us – and out into the world.

So, in a sense (in theory), you are actually the low end.
And the universe rests upon your roots.

No pressure.

Bottoms Up,


  1. Carla Gates

    Thank you, Anthony.

    Mystery #3, Q1: 🙋🏾‍♀️
    Mystery #3, Q2: 🙅🏾‍♀️

    ❤ Candaca

  2. Ned Tillman

    intriguing as always. My progeny think of me as The Rock. But in recent years I have been expanding my horizons and morphing into roots and mycelial networks. I like to think of being an underlying rhythm that supports all of them.

    I also realized from your piece that I go to UUCC to think – be intellectually stimulated, but I am most moved when I come out feeling something – something that often stays with me for days. I will return to these remarks again – I am sure there is more to feel and think about.

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