Notation on Bass Guitar – Reading Music

Reading Notes/Notation – A Dying Art?

Many, many musicians who play modern music, especially on fretted instruments such as guitar and bass, have a real weak spot when it comes to reading notation or “dots”. The thing that really confuses me is the unwillingness of many musicians to even consider trying to learn it. I understand that many people only like their own particular “thing”, whatever that may be, but I strongly believe that the more you know about music and your instrument, the better.

The fact of life is, if you want to be a professional musician then reading music is a skill you can’t really live without, and I have witnessed this first hand many times, getting gigs because I can read and seeing others lose them because they can’t.

The most amazing thing is that learning to read music doesn’t take that long to understand, and once you have the skill it will keep developing and never be lost, enabling you to draw ideas/concepts and influences from any piece of written music you can ever find (and there’s a lot out there!).

Why not just use guitar tabs etc, I hear you ask? Well, they tell you where to put your fingers, agreed……and can be a really handy thing at times……but tab doesn’t give you enough information. There is no mention of rhythm at all, so if you don’t know the piece and have no reference recording of it, you’re a bit stuck. Notation on the other hand conveys many components enabling you to play music, without needing other references. You have pitch, rhythm, dynamics, sometimes harmony and other necessary information all combined into one system. If you can read that, you don’t need anything else.

How to Start

To me, the logical place to start with notation is note recognition, or learning where all the notes are on your bass and how they look written down. We will focus on this first, before rhythm or other aspects of notation are introduced. I have provided a PDF for download below, and this will be followed by a video lesson in the near future.

View/Download Bass Notation Reference Sheet

Also, reading around this subject is definitely advised. The first half of the following link explains how notation works, and the second half deals with further aspects should you want to read on.

Method Behind The Music – Notation

The Aim of this Exercise

The objective here is to increase familiarity with note names, how they relate to the fingerboard, and how they look in notation form. This will be coupled with technical practice relating to the use of 1 finger per fret concepts (Left Hand) and alternating index and middle fingers (Right Hand), so you’re actually working on about 4 or 5 musical topics/elements at the same time. This is how to practice efficiently. Also be aware of the fact that string players have the issue of being able to play the same note in a variety of places on the fingerboard, and you should be consciously trying to see patterns of where the same notes repeat themselves.

How to do The Exercise

Play each bar through slowly, out of time, while concentrating on what the note looks like written down on the page. While doing this, say the note name out loud (sharps on the way up, flats on the way down). Also be aware of what your left and right hands are doing, so change your focus every so often from the note names and how they look written down, to what your hands are doing.

Right hand should be strictly alternating index and middle fingers (this can be flipped so you begin on the middle finger then alternate middle, index). Left hand should be using one finger per fret, thumb roughly in line with the middle finger and dropped down towards the bottom of the back of the neck. Fingers should be arched and pressing into the string and fingerboard, not pulling or pushing it, and once a note is fretted it should be held down (on the way up) and all fingers should be fretting on the way down. The previously used finger should then be simply removed a small distance to play the next note when descending.
Play one line at a time, until you are comfortable, then move on to the next line. Once that is also comfortable, play all the way up and down one string, whilst still saying the note names out loud. Repeat this process for all strings, then put it all together. Also try breaking it up by skipping strings and starting at the 12 fret so you play descending then ascending.

Developing Your Notation Reading Skills

Now you have a reference, you can pick any bass music out there and slowly work through it to identify how to play the notes, and what they are called. I will develop these concepts on in a further lesson in future, but should you have any questions, feel free to get in touch via my Contact Page.

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Intervals - Building Blocks of Music
Recording with Jodie Marie at Urchin Studios