Why you should learn to read music as a bass player

Reading music for bass guitar

Bass players tend to be the butt of many jokes – maybe second only to all my drummer friends 😉 I might make a blog post with my favourites one day, but they usually boil down to things like “bass players are out of tune, stupid, unemployed, cant keep time” etc etc. Personally I’m long past the point of any of these jokes being insulting but I wanted to share with fellow bassists the reason why you might be on the receiving end of this kind of “comedy”. This kind of attitude stems from the fact that a lot of bass players aren’t “classically” trained. We don’t necessarily go through the same musical education as say, a violin player might. From a young age we might not be drilled with learning scales, playing sheet music, taking exams and learning music theory. Bass tends to be thought about as an ‘accompanying’ instrument – i.e one that doesn’t initially lend itself to be playing solo parts. We might learn the instrument by listening to our favourite songs, which if they are in the pop or rock genre tend to have fairly simple bass lines following the roots of the chords. They can generally be learnt by ear, maybe with the odd chord chart. It’s very possible to then go into a band situation and play these types of songs with no need for any written music. You can communicate with band mates by talking about chords or saying “play it a bit more like this!”. This type of music doesn’t need to have sheet music, you are just going off instinct and memory. By the way, if you want a good comeback for the aforementioned violin player here a good one – ‘what’s the definition of perfect pitch? Throwing a violin into a skip without it touching the sides’..

So what kind of music needs sheet music?
The type of music which requires you to play a pre-defined part and would be too complicated to do a Marty McFly in Back to the Future – “All right, guys, uh, listen. This is a blues riff in ‘B’, watch me for the changes, and try and keep up, okay?”.

When might you actually NEED to be able to read music?
You might be playing with a jazz band where the bass could be playing unison with the horn section through a complicated melody. It would be much easier to just follow the sheet music than it would to sit down with the saxophonist and talk through ALL the notes. You might be playing with a band for a theatre performance. Your role here is to provide a solid foundation to the harmony, the way the person who composed the music intended. He didn’t want you to be noodling away whilst there’s dialogue going on on-stage. You just need to play the part. Ok?

What is the main difference between the 2 examples above and the one earlier in the piece?
The jazz band and the theatre band are more likely to be PAID work and this is the really important point to realise. You can easily get by in many music situations without knowing a single thing about reading sheet music. You can also get paid in a lot of these situations. But are you really exploiting your potential?

What I’m really talking about is how you can maximise your opportunities for earning money as a working bass player. If you are the guy or girl who’s always there on time, has learnt all the songs, plays like a dream and can read anything that’s put in front of you then you are going to be asked to come back for more work if it comes up. Sure you will still get work if you don’t read sheet music but you wouldn’t be putting yourself in the BEST position commercially if you couldn’t.

So, do I need to be able to read music?

In summary, no you don’t. However, there are many situations as a working bass player where it will either be useful or necessary. By not learning this fundamental skill you might be losing out on a big chunk of work which might otherwise come your way. There are lots of resources online to help you get your head round reading sheet music. If you need more help then you might have to pay to have a few lessons with a local teacher. If your aim is to be earning money playing bass then this initial outlay will probably pay for itself in quite a short space of time!

Mitch Cockman
Musician and blogger at Yorkshire Bass Player
Mitch is a musician, band leader and web designer from Yorkshire. He is primarily a bass player and you can find links to most of his work at:

One thought on “Why you should learn to read music as a bass player

  1. I agree. reading music helps a lot with being a better musician. everyone should try it its not a waste of time!

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