The Reading Hurdle and How to Jump It

Q: I’m working on being a more fluent sight-reader. I can read notes and their values but it takes me a while to transfer that to the instrument. Any advice on how to most effectively improve?

A: Good for you for devoting time to this worthwhile endeavor!

Learning to read music is much like learning to read a spoken language. While it is important to learn the rules and technical aspects of the language, the most important thing is to do it, and often.

Reading is a real “use it or lose it” type of skill. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who have gotten frustrated because they spend hours in a day working on a piece of music and how to translate it to the instrument, only to not go back for another week or two and have to start over.

I always say that it’s better to spend a solid 20 minutes a day (every day) reading, than to spend 10 hours in one day but then not go back to it for a week.

The knowledge is built and internalized brick by brick (note by note). In order to really internalize it, you need to continue to build upon that knowledge daily. This way, the stuff you fully get is further internalized, the stuff you kind of get is further solidified, the stuff you don’t yet have will be much more in reach.

If you are working on it already, chances are that you’ve gotten some good music to read. I’m a big fan of classical pieces for bass (or cello, and any bass clef instrument will do). Typically, classical music is often more linear in nature, so it’ll make better sense visually (as opposed to starting off by reading bebop heads, for example).

Do this every single day for as long as you can devote to it. You will make the note-to-fretboard associations one note at a time.

Pay attention to relationships. For example, if you know that the lowest space (between lines) is an A, then, when you see a note on the bottom line, you can think to yourself, “ok, it’s one below A… must be a G!”. This is how you will star to make the associations and, if you do it every day, they will stick in no time.

In addition to the cello and bass music I mentioned, pick up some written transcriptions of any solos or melodies that you already know and like. It is good if you know how it’s supposed to sound so you know when you’ve made a mistake. Plus, you’ll get a kick out of learning familiar material anyway.

Rufus Reid has written some wonderful books, and I am a big fan of his The Evolving Bassist. This is a wonderful book and spans the evolution of one’s playing from the Major scale, to reading, to walking bass lines to some great transcriptions of solos.

Have fun learning and your bound to put in the time necessary to get the most out of it!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Jesus Lopez Munoz Cancel reply

  1. typo: 3rd paragraph from last
    This is how you will star to make the associations and, if you do it every day, they will stick in no time.

  2. Dave

    Another really important thing is to learn how to translate for the whole fretboard, you can be fluent with reading lower notes in position 1, but then be clueless as you get into the higher notes. What I do is just play through a classical piece a couple of times and each time try and figure out a different position on the neck to play it at.

  3. I’ve just started this year theory and reading notes, and it’s true: it takes you to a whole new level. Wish I had more time.

    • I wish so too. I went through two semesters of music at college, but music with a very academic approach was not my thing since I’m not very disciplined. However I’ve picked up a more serious studying methodology these days and it seems to be paying off… I just wish had more time to go back to reading notes and all that, it is necessary, but not taking a masters in aesthetics and art history complicates everything a little bit…

  4. Bass Clef Since Trombone at 10 (4th grade band), Tuba in the 8th grade, Bass Viol and Electric Bass in High School. Guitar since 5th grade, drums since 3rd grade… Semi pro swing bands and trad jazz outfits etc… Never learned Piano but I can play a little bit.

    Not only is reading mandatory in my opinion, but drums in the 3rd grade really kick started my rythmn. Today, 4 decades later I’m still playing electric bass and guitar, and drums… and still tinkering on the piano.

  5. Dave’s method is good.

  6. A good way to help with improving your reading is to transcribe from recordings. It helped me no end.

  7. Started on cello at 8, so it was a non issue…thank the BASS gods I learned to read then. I still have to read every day to practice…the Jamerson stuff is incredibly hard for me.

  8. There’s absolutely no downside to knowledge. The benefits of reading and knowing theory are obvious, even if we are not called upon reading notes or analyzing music from a theoretical point of view on a daily basis. And being able to read can make the difference in many working situations.

  9. I started playing Bass at 13 years old in 1977! I started studying music right away with private lessons. Back then, lessons were $4 a half hour! I graduated from the Musicians Institute, Washburn University. Attended University of North Texas (5 semesters) and finally, University of Nevada at Reno. I have basically been studying/playing/teaching the Bass my entire life from 13 years old on. I am now 48 years old.

  10. When I was able to begin playing again (three strokes had shut me down for a bit) I had to literally start from the beginning again. I was fortunate to have retained an instructor who mandated not just the physical aspects of playing but the mandatory knowledge of scales, intense theory and the ability to both read and write music. He’s taught me to write what I play. Many times, I use just the drum style accompaniement on the Yama keyboard to build lines and solos. He taught me to record those sessions into the keyboard and to then transcribe on playback. Sometimes, you only get thrown chord chards and when that happens, ya gotta know what you’re dealing with along leading notes from one to the other depending on how creative ya want to get or are allowed to get.

  11. I can not read a note of music for the bass.
    I learned a lot of songs back in the day by ear and wore out some 45’s…….LOL But now a days….. thank goodness for YOUTUBE! I can get litarly hundreds of bass teachers to teach almost any whole song and tecnique, one on one!
    I play most every weekend with several bands and mates. I would strongly suggest that all new BASS PLAYERS learn to read as it will take you to a whole new level of playing!
    And do not forget…Rock and Roll is better LIVE!

  12. The evolving bassist is a fantastic book for learning to read music

  13. I recently started taking music theory and my playing improved! thanks to sight reading.