When learning bass, which comes first: the music or the song?


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.

Comments on When learning bass, which comes first: the music or the song?

  1. Celia Bradley says:

    I don’t think it’s good to be asking which ‘should’ come first because then you’re making it into a rule and people are different – what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. For me, the music always comes first (and I mean all aspects of it – the sound, the written music, the theory) – I’m not currently playing in a band so I don’t have the pressure of having to learn songs and if I ever do learn songs it’s to hear the sound of the bass line and learn how it’s put together and played over the progression – I’m more interested in learning it as a piece of music than a song. Take your stuff in Bottom Line Club Jon, it sounds good as pieces of music, not songs – I like learning it because I can watch your demonstration and read the music along with it – I need to do that so I can learn the rhythm and know which notes to play and when – I can’t yet just listen to something and know how to play it by ear on the bass and I would just get frustrated trying to find the right notes. I learn to copy you, making adjustments until it sounds right and then I keep practising until I can play it myself with the backing track. I then go on to analysing the lines, trying to work out why you used certain notes to create phrases, did you use octaves, chromatic passing notes or the Pentatonic scale (whatever comes to mind for me) – basically how do you make the music sound good and say what you want it to say. Then my next step, when my fingers have got the hang of playing what you’ve written, is to think how I can vary it myself – how will it sound if I play root-3rd here instead of root-5th, what happens to the feel of it if I vary the rhythm or add an approach note going to the next chord change? These are simple questions I ask myself because I’m just learning about what makes the music work – and I have to see stuff written down or diagrams, because I’m predominantly a visual learner – I actually get excited about seeing a piece of written music because I can see if it’s going to sound good and I can’t wait to learn to play it. If someone learns things by ear easily they can listen to a song and go away and play it on the bass – but that’s not me – maybe one day I’ll be able to improvise, but that will be after I’ve learned the language of music and I’ve built up some musical vocabulary that I can use to express myself – even then I will probably need to see a lead sheet so I know what the chord progression is!

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Thanks, Celia. I’ve always admired your diligence and how seriously you are about learning bass. Awesome!
      When I say “should,” I’m asking for people’s opinions, not necessarily what’s right or wrong. So, as far as what works for one versus another, we’re totally on the same page.

      Thanks so much for weighing in. May you be an inspiration to everyone who wants to learn bass! 🙂

  2. Charlie Irwin says:

    Which came first – the chicken or the egg? I think of it as a “leap-frog” deal. You pick up the instrument, figure out how to make some noise, apply that to a song and try to make it all work. It’s the way kids learn language. They hear a word and then they repeat it endlessly, watching and listening until they figure out when it works and when it doesn’t. And they can learn to talk without a lot of schooling, but if they want to write literature, etc, they need to dive deeper into the technical structure, while always remembering, when they fighting the alligators, that their real purpose is to drain the swamp. (Yes, I know that the old saw is environmentally incorrect.) The great musicians have both big ears for the music and big chops to play it. One thing that bothers me among my musical compatriots is how many of them stop learning. (I exited high school and started working as a musician 60 years ago.) I play with a lot of folks – good musicians – who haven’t really learned a new lick in 20 years. And every song they play tends to sound the same. The trick is to keep pushing to hone your chops so you can play appropriately any tune that comes along. Isaac Asimov (sci-fi writer who was a biologist by training) said that biologists recognize only two phases in life – growth and decay. Your choice…

    (PS: the egg came first – many species laid eggs before chickens evolved…)

    1. Jon Liebman says:

      Great perspective, Charlie. Thanks for weighing in!

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