Overcoming Learning Disabilities in Music

Bassist by Feliciano Guimaraes

Photo by Feliciano Guimaraes

Q: What advice do you have for someone who has problems with playing 16th notes and has learning disability in math? I have goals to play music in my own gigs and play at a couple venues, but I’m doubting whether it’s even possible to play on one’s own.

A: I don’t think that a learning disability should hinder you too much, but you may need to find other ways in which to understand and internalize rhythm (and harmony, for that matter).

I’ve long believed that there are two primary ways most people come to understand music and the making of music:

  1. Analytical: This has always been the way it way made sense to me. I needed to understand how rhythms worked in a more mathematical way, and I needed to understand harmony in much the same way. I also learned to read very early in my training and also used that in my work, writing things out on paper and then working on them with the instrument in my hands. I needed to understand what the nuts and bolts were and how they fit together and only then, could I begin to put it into action.
  2. Aural: Most musicians I come across started this way, and many fantastic musicians I’ve known have never really bothered too much with the analytical side of music making. Learning tunes by ear, finding patterns that work over certain types of sounds (tonalities). This is really a matter of developing the ear by playing with others and learning tunes and lines by ear in the shed and then using those ears in real time to react to the music.

These are both likely over-simplifications, but it comes down to ear players or theory-driven players. Personally, I think that it would be best to work hard to gain the best of both of those worlds. We all likely start in one camp or the other and might decide at a certain point to explore music from the alternate perspective (as I did – starting with the book and moving to the ear to try and ride the middle path).

It sounds like you may just need to put your eggs on the “ear” basket, in earnest. I have no doubt, however, that you can work to become the player you want to be by simply fostering the “ear” side of your development. It’s possible that you may need to hear something before you can play it (instead of working it out mathematically beforehand) so I would suggest the following:

  1. Learn as many tunes, bass lines, melodies, etc. as you can by ear. Spend some quality time during every practice session fostering your ability to hear something, find that first note of the pattern on your fretboard, and then work out the rest of the pattern by ear. You will soon start to associate certain shapes or patterns with certain sounds and you will eventually get fast enough to play most anything after hearing it a few times.
  2. Take the same approach with rhythm. Don’t worry about whether your playing 4 groups of 4, or whatever it is, but rather focus on the sound and feel of whatever it is and try to mimic it on your instrument. You might try and find some drum or percussion loops online and use those as a practice tool (learning to play the rhythms on your bass). Try and lock into a rhythm and create a bass line out of it. Practicing with a metronome is also worthwhile, especially if you get one that has various subdivision groupings (8th notes, triplets, 16ths, etc…) You don’t need to worry about the math of it, just focus on the sound of it!
  3. Get together with other musicians and have a guitarist or keyboard player teach you a tune on the spot. Foster your ability to hear what they play and listen to how they explain it and turn that all into music. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time, just worry about getting it slightly more right the second time, and even more right the third time, etc.
  4. Practice singing things and then finding them on your instrument. This could be something somebody else played or something that you just hear in your head. You will slowly begin associating sounds with shapes and patterns on your fretboard.
  5. Ear training. Aside from transcribing music from albums and learning tunes by ear, get a good ear training app and work on various intervals. You can also do this with your instrument, btw.. Practice hearing one note and then trying to sing or play various intervals from that starting point. This really helps you to internalize what a major 3rd sounds like as compared to a minor 3rd, for example.

There are a lot of tips in books, online or in apps which will point out nursery rhymes or songs we all know and teach you the intervals they are using. This is a common way to begin down this road.

There is always a way, if we get creative. For example, Evelyn Glennie is a severely hearing impaired, world class percussionist. In short, she focuses more on her sensation of vibrations. You’ve likely heard of blind people who can navigate using the reverberations of mouth clicks and noises to get a sense of their surroundings? That is all to say, where there is a will, there is a way. You just have to dig deep and connect to what you want in the best way you can, and put in the work. It will come!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Joseph Miller

    I am 55 basses can’t seem to find no one willing to play with me and its frustrating. . . i don’t wanna lose hope

    • Mark S Beretta

      Joseph I feel the same way , but I dont let it bother me. I learn mostly by ear , shapes feel and tone. Practicing over and over till it’s engrained in my memory then it’s there for good. I have dyslexia and everything is messed up when it comes to reading tabs etc.
      I know when I hit a wrong note , I feel it in my stomach then by ear. I may not be as fast but more precise then take it from there. Even humming the notes to myself I can find it on the fretboard. I can’t remember all the notes on my bass neck but know the important ones. The first thing I hear when listening to a song is the bass , I’m just wired that way. Play a simple melody like Happy Birthday , once you got it down you won’t forget it. I found over the years that linking helps , somehow I find my way around.
      Being too eager to learn fast slows me down.

    • Josh

      Get out to open mic nights, post on your local craigslist community section under musicians, search for open jam sessions that might be happening in your area. This helped me find others that were interested in learning together.

  2. barryabass

    What about those picture associations? i haven’t memorized rhythms in that way but it looks pretty cool.


    • Mark S Beretta

      I do the same but I use colors , color association seems to work for me.
      When I run out out colors I use smell association.
      We never forget the smell of certain things sort of like picture associations.