By Jon Liebman
September 29, 2023
So, which comes first:
Getting educated on the fundamentals of music – you know, scales, theory, etc…
… or just learning the damn song?
On the one hand, reading music is an incredibly useful skill. It will help your musical ability in so many ways. Even though, at first, you may have no idea what the music is supposed to sound like, once you read it, play it and hear it, you can usually get into it pretty quickly.
On the other hand, what if you took the opposite approach? I suppose it’s a lot more common for someone to first like a song, then try to play it.
So, when you’re learning bass, is one approach better than the other?
Learning bass like an actor
Just the other day, I was talking with Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Yes, he’s a bass player. A very serious bass player, in fact.
During the conversation, published as this week’s FBPO interview, I asked Malcolm what advice he had for someone who wants to learn bass.
First off, he pretty much put on his “acting hat,” and started talking about the way a lot of actors are used to memorizing lines, spewing them out, and then forgetting them. He then made a parallel between learning as an actor and learning as a bass player.
“I think about what Victor Wooten says about learning music,” says Malcolm, “how we tend to approach it backwards. When we’re learning music, we’re learning notes and scales. But as Victor says, no one tells a kid, ‘Here are 26 letters, now go make some words.’ We learn language from our parents and people who we’re around.”
Learning by internalizing
In other words, if you first know what a song sounds like, it already means something to you. At that point you can break it down to see how it’s put together.
“I may find a piece of music I like,” Malcolm says, “‘I like that phrase there.’ I will take that phrase, put it in my computer, loop it, and just learn that phrase, over and over, and just sing it over and over and over and over, so I can internalize it. Then go to my bass and then find it.”
Makes sense. After all, we learned to talk before we learned how to read and write. According to Malcolm, hearing a song in your head and being able to sing it just makes more sense.
“If you can sing it, you can play it,” he says. “So I sing it to myself, and then I get my bass and I find that thing that I’ve been singing for the last couple of days.”
The chicken or the egg?
Okay, but to me, it’s almost like and “chicken and egg” thing. If we know the song in our head and then try to play it, how do we know what to play without blindly trying different notes until we find the right ones?
“If you’ve been doing scales and you know your notes, that will make it easier,” says Malcolm, “but I’m really for the approach of internalizing the music as opposed to just seeing the notes and scales and trying to make sense of all this stuff.”
The sweet spot
Personally, I believe the best answer is in the middle. Who says we can’t learn both skills at the same time?
Learn some intervals, then play a pattern. Now vary that pattern. “Ooh, that sounds like something I know! What other songs use that pattern?”
Now, what’s the relationship between these notes? “Hey, that sounds like blah-blah-blah. Let’s play with that a little bit. Look what I can do. This is cool!”
If you’ve been following me for any period of time, you know I make all my bass-learning resources groove. My lessons are actual pieces of music designed to be musically satisfying and fun to play.
I’m all about getting good while you’re having fun, and having fun while you’re getting good.
It works and my students have always loved it.
What about you?
Have a thought about whether music fundamentals or learning the song should come first? Leave a comment below and let me know your feeling on the subject. And be sure to watch my interview with Malcolm here.