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.