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Instinct vs. Learning: Ideas for Musical Growth

Walking the bass

Q: I’ve been learning to play the bass for about a year now, and I have a concern: I am a very instinctual bassist. I tried playing guitar when I was younger, but didn’t connect. I took to the bass right away. I “hear” a groove in my head, and I’m able to reproduce it on the bass. So my concern is that my instinct will only carry so far. When it comes to the technical aspects of bass playing, understanding music theory, learning the notes on the fretboard, and so on, I find it a struggle because my instincts want to take over. I feel that if I don’t become more rooted in the fundamentals, I’ll be limited in my bass playing. Any suggestions on how to marry instinctual bass playing with grasping and applying the fundamentals of bass playing?

A: Many players begin their path learning by ear, and some are able to become quite good players without ever learning much in the way of theory, chord structures and the like. Many may get comfortable enough to know what chords sound like and how to play those sounds on the instrument without ever thinking of specific notes, chord tones or scale degrees. Charlie Haden is an example of a fantastic jazz bassist who learned by ear. Churches are also full of incredible players who learn by ear and by simply doing it from a young age.

Just as there are some that learn exclusively by ear, there are others who learn in a completely technical way and work out note choices, like a math problem.

I posit that the best players are likely those who have a bit of both going on. You have to develop your ears and develop the ability to hear what the music wants aurally, but life as a working musician also becomes much easier (as does learning any new thing) if you can also read and analyze music and develop the ability to work through complex chord changes in an intellectual way.

I find that people have a harder time forcing themselves to intellectualize music when they can already “hear” it than the other way around. It may just be more of a natural progression to work on ear training in a technical way after you’ve become accustomed to developing your harmonic skills in a technical way.

From whichever direction you are approaching the problem, it is hard to argue that you wouldn’t be better served if you expanded your knowledge base in every direction.

My advice would be to force yourself to work through music which is harder for you to instinctually navigate. This might mean any number of things. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Get some classical music in bass clef. Cello suites, double bass pieces, anything. Reading notation is something that you can’t fake. This will force you to work through each note, one by one.
  • I also highly recommend Oscar Stagnaro’s book, The Latin Bass Book for great reading and rhythmic exercises. You will also develop the ability to see a written rhythm and know how it sounds before you even play it. This skill is immensely helpful.
  • Work on tunes out of The Real Book
  • If you are an R&B ear player, for example, then navigating jazz standards will not be entirely intuitive and force you to figure out what notes are in each chord. You will have to get back to arpeggios and will likely connect your knowledge of the shapes of a sound to the chord symbol for that shape (slowly internalizing scale degrees and various relationships in the process).
  • Get a book like Mark Levin’s The Jazz Theory Book and start reading it from the beginning. As soon as there is something that you don’t understand, stop and work through it until you do.

The real key here is that you already have half of the story: how music sounds and what that looks like on your instrument. You really just need to connect what you know to the written language.

It’s like you already know how to speak, but you can’t read.

For those of us who approached it from a technical side first, it’s like understanding the rules of grammar and knowing how to read but not having had much experience having long and improvised conversations with people. We’re not as socially adept, in a way.

It will take discipline but it will be worth it. The good news is that, with everything you learn, you will realize that you already knew that, but just thought of it differently. This will enhance your understanding of music in a fantastic way and you will not only be a better player for it but you will expand your vocabulary greatly as well as your ability to understand music and how it works.

Once you’ve really pulled the two sides together, you will be in a place where you can hear your way through a tune as it happens or sight-read a complicated song like you’ve known it for years. That is what I aspire to be, musically and professionally and that it was gets me much of the work I have. We have to marry the two worlds in order to really understand music from a deeper place.

Readers, what sort of player are you? Do you survive mostly on instincts? On studies? A combo? How did you balance it out? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Photo by Cameron Allan

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