Learning bass by ear or by studying theory

You can learn a lot from just listening… but is it enough?

By Jon Liebman
October 6, 2023

Learning songs can be so frustrating. 

Even if you’re just trying to find the roots of the chords on the bass, when you’re guessing you’ve only got a one out of 12 chance of being right.

Some people prefer that approach, rather than taking the time to study music theory and learning how all the notes work together.

So which approach is better?

Well, it depends.

I had a fun conversation last week with Ardavan “Ardy” Sarraf, bass player for The Fab Four, a top-notch, awesomely authentic Beatles tribute band, published as this week’s FBPO interview.

Though Ardy learned bass and guitar on his own, he sees pros and cons to both sides.

Being “ear taught”

“I’m mainly ear taught, almost completely,” Ardy says, “although I did take one bass class. For me it wasn’t the right thing because I just I didn’t want to play in a band reading music.”

Ardy just likes to play. He finds enjoyment with every opportunity to pick up a bass and have fun.

“I think just the joy of sitting around and playing a little bass, one of your favorite songs,” he says, “I think that’s a great thing.”

Not to say he hasn’t worked hard to get where he is – like teaching himself to play lefty bass! – but most of the time he’s pretty casual about it. A lot of times he fools around on the bass while watching TV.

“That’s what I do a lot,” he says with a smile. “Watch TV, have a bite of food, go back and play more, have a drink, go back and play! I think just the joy of playing, just play when you can.”

Being “theory taught”

At the same time, there’s a side of him that wishes he had studied music and learned more about music theory, recognizing that it would have helped him in the long run.

“I took one bass class,” he says, “and to be honest with you for me it wasn’t the right thing (for me) because I just I didn’t want to play in a band reading music. I wanted to sing and play.”

Looking back, though, he might have done things differently and dug into the theory, at least a little bit.

“I wasn’t that kind of a musician, although I wish I had just because I of the knowledge of it. I think it’s very important.”

Which is better… for you?

Though studying music would have been beneficial for Ardy, it just didn’t make sense for him at the time.

“I preferred to play by ear,” he says, “but a lot of my friends went to different music schools and they’re much better off for it. It brought them into a whole broader world of music, not just bass.”

The answer is somewhere in the middle (IMO)

Personally, I believe if you want to understand how songs are structured, the way chords are built, and why certain notes work better than others over certain chords, a good dose of music theory is definitely advisable. 

I’ve helped thousands of people learn bass by introducing groove-oriented music theory elements, and pretty much all of them have thanked me for it.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you and which approach you prefer.

Decide for yourself

Whichever route you choose, just enjoy it. And, as Ardy says, don’t be too hard on yourself.

“Don’t pick apart what you’re playing,” says Ardy. “Nobody’s perfect. Everybody plays differently. You could read music, you could not read music. You could learn by ear…”

How about you?

What are your thoughts about learning bass strictly by ear versus by studying music theory? Is there a balance somewhere in the middle that works for you? Leave a comment below and weigh in with your opinion. Then be sure to check out my interview with Ardy here.

Comments on Learning bass by ear or by studying theory

  1. Keith says:

    Learning by ear and studying theory including reading music are both important. If your goal is to be a professional touring musician/session musician, having the ability to read in addition to learning by ear will make you more marketable.

  2. John A Ewing says:

    I started playing Bass after guitar lessons in the late 60s in my teens.
    Found I really had an ear for that bottom end. So switched to bass. Then years later took a Bass class. Playing in a band for some 20 years made me functional, but I knew I needed to improve and understand theory.
    So now in my early 70s I feel reborn. Guess what I am saying is a little of both is good.

  3. Michael says:

    I don’t know why it’s almost always expressed as either/or question.

    Playing by ear and knowing (enough) theory complement each other!!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Good point, Michael. Thanks!

  4. Marc Lutz says:

    Playing by ear has been a challenge for 40 years, and going to open mics has been too, but, it’s definitely been an eye opener, a welcome challenge, keeps you on your toes.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Marc!

  5. Duck says:

    Heavy doses of both are necessary if you want to become a complete bassist and musician and be able to adapt to a variety of different situations. Learning by ear is invaluable and a must for developing your ear. Theory gives context and helps you understand what you hear so you can apply it in different situations. It also gives you the ability to communicate quickly and effectively with other musicians. Reading traditional notation is the best way to learn the fingerboard, free yourself from having to watch your left hand while you play, and absorb the entirety of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Duck!

  6. Rob Walker says:

    “Ladies and Gentlemen..The Beatles! –Oops! The Fab Four!
    I enjoyed the interview with Ardavan “Ardy” Sarraf, bass player for The Fab Four. I’ve seen the Fab Four in performance, and they do a fantastic job. I was too young to see The Beatles live back then, but they do a great job, and I am particularly impressed by Ardy’s choice to learn bass left-handed to duplicate the look of Paul McCartney on the Ric or Hoffner. Incredible that he learned by ear only without the aid of tablature or standard notation. Whatever you decide to do to further your bass knowledge, either by woodshedding on bass while watching TV or taking classes to improve your sight reading, the 3 P’s are essential: Passion, Practice, and Persistence. -Rob Walker

  7. Jon Liebman says:

    Thanks, Rob!

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