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

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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  1. I started on piano at age 6. I picked up bass at 13; and like the poster, took to it very naturally. Within a year, my reading when to hell because I could figure out everything I wanted my ear. This carried me through the next 20 years of playing because I had a great background in music from piano, I’m a quick study, I could hear my way through anything, AND I played in all original music bands – didn’t need that broad scope of styles, really. There came a time while working freelance, and being influenced by the artists that I was working with, that I wished to become a more well-rounded musician, not just a competent prog metal / rock / pop bassist who could pull off R&B and some jazz just based on hearing it. I could fake my way through other styles, but, an experienced player could tell I was faking it (at least, that’s what I always thought). Anyway, I only seriously took up my studies in trying to become a well rounded bassist that can play competently in many styles over these past few years – and, with the discipline and desire I have now, it’s been quite an enjoyable pursuit. I’m glad I had the structured background as when I started reading again, and exploring chord theory, and watching online lessons (something I didn’t have growing up!), I had that common understanding of terms and nomenclature that really helped me out and advanced my studies here 20+ years later. I feel that while you don’t need the structured background, it certainly is helpful and it never goes away.

  2. I began on guitar at around 10 years of age, then shifted to bass at 14, and had tuition in technique and theory. All the time playing with and writing songs with different musos. I noticed the playing was becoming easier and the hearing of melody improved beacuse of playing by ear and having the backup of theory.

    • You have a unique technique Geordie that gave Rose Tattoo a distinct bass sound, Tatts are missing so much when you aren’t playing with them

  3. Great article. It articulated (chuckle) a lot of the concepts I’ve been grappling with for the last few years perfectly. I’m a totally instinctual bass player, at the moment. I resisted the idea of learning music for a long time; partly out of laziness, and partly out of a desire to not have my innate musical essence compromised somehow.

    “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.” That’s the one line that really got me. I’ve been living in self-imposed musical ignorance for far too long. It’s high time I got technical.

  4. I started on trumpet and played that all through college, i learned that the traditional way, but three years agao, i starting playing bass and learned almost all by ear…now im trying to add reading on bass and see if i can get it as good as my trumpet reading…then playing by ear on trumpet….both are challenging

  5. I started playing at 14 and was the only kid at my school who owned a bass, so I was always the bassist in high school bands. I was fortunate enough to have a high school band director who was also a great session bassist. I was already adept at playing most everything I heard, but he taught me the greatest real world knowledge that any bassist could want- how to read charts, the Nashville numbers, improvisation, melody, harmony, chord structure, how to listen (very underrated skill), and how to stay in the pocket. 22 years later it’s still working!

  6. Pam

    My two children (adults now) were trained differently on music. Our daughter started traditional piano lessons at age 9, then added traditional cello lessons at about 14. Our son started Suzuki violin at 4, then added traditional piano at about 7 to help him read music better. Both children played in our city’s Jr. Symphony until they aged out. Years later our son now plays guitar (for enjoyment), mainly by ear but can and does use music as needed, but has a great ear. Our daughter never touches her instruments (playing for enjoyment) even though she taught and owned her own music school after she graduated college. She knows and understands music and theory from an intellectual standpoint, how and why it works, but her ear and natural rhythm are not as instinctive as our son’s in my opinion. Our son will pick up any random instrument and give it a try, our daughter on the other hand may or may not, but even then, only if there is some music to guide her. Anyway this has been my observation for what it’s worth.