Bass Reflections – Music Theory vs Ear

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Before I start, I should mention that, many many years ago, I did know some music theory. The first instrument I learned to play, even before the baritone horn in 4th grade, was the piano. Learning to play both included structured lessons. So yes, I did at one time in my life know some theory. But, as you will see, I threw it away like one would throw away chicken bones after a good meal. (get the analogy… bones… music structure… 🙂 )

I’ve been a bass player for some 25 years, but haven’t been a student of bass since I took up the instrument all those years ago. Back then, I wanted to learn where all the notes are on the bass. I went so far as to hand draw a huge chart showing every note on the fretboard. But early on, slowly but surly, my ear took over. I love having that talent to hear a song just once, and be able to play it at least reasonably well. That works great when you’re in a jam session, and the keyboard player calls out “hey, do you know this song?”, and you can say “Yeah, I can play it!”. even though you have never done so. It’s a tremendous gift for which I’m grateful. That said, I didn’t realize by placing all my eggs in that basket I was choking myself, denying myself the breath of knowledge that would have made me a better player. I stunted my growth as a musician.

Fast forward 20 something years later. For the longest time I swore I would learn to play guitar. Last year I finally started to do just that. I’m making good progress and even played a few rhythm guitar bits on stage. I’m also making the effort not to just learn where the fingers go to make sounds, but I’m learning what those notes are and how they relate to chord structure.

Has it helped?

My band, Acoustic Highway, will often have two or three guitars going at the same time. Late last year during a rehearsal, while trying to figure out a new song we had started to work on during the previous get-together, one of the guitarists asked what key it was in. I blurted out A minor! Now, to many here, that may sound like a basic thing. But, for me, it was connection I never could have accomplished if I hadn’t been working on the guitar.

I still have a very long way to go, and things don’t sink in as quickly as they do when I’m playing by ear…. But, I’m improving. I guess that is all I can ask.

PS. Thanks to Anthony Wellington for inspiring this post.

2 Comments to “Bass Reflections – Music Theory vs Ear”

  1. By Darren Newman, February 19, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    That’s awesome man! I took up guitar at 12 yrs old after having played drums for a couple of years…I realized drummers have got it BAD in having to set-up and take down all that equipment 🙂 I was self-taught and realized early on that I have a very good ear, so much so that I drove my sister off the clarinet when I asked if I could try it and learned the Star Wars song right away and I drove my uncle off the piano when I picked up Music Box Dancer and Hall of the Mountain King the first time I tried playing a piano…

    It’s a double-edged sword tho’ when one takes a theory class as I had in college…I LOVE the sound and use of tritones and reverse skips but got many a red mark on my counterpoint exercises the first time I took the class…something about “You need to LEARN the rules before you can BREAK them Newman!” *lol* I got an F because I wrote what I HEARD, rather than what was “RIGHT”…so I retook the class and got an A by just using the rules laid out before me, without playing a damned phrase…

    I have always been able to pick up any instrument I touch, although the trumpet was most difficult thus far and lately I have taken to teaching myself violin…it is kicking my ass!! *lol* Keep it up Mike, music is a wondrous thing regardless of “rules” or “a good ear”…just play man, just play…

  2. By Sonicfrog, February 19, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    I’m also learning mandolin… though I haven’t picked it up in a bit… You know… Been Busy!

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