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How much theory should a musician know?

Discussion in 'Ask the Berklee Bass Department' started by Thomas Kievit, Jan 31, 2014.

  1. Thomas Kievit

    Thomas Kievit Guest

    May 19, 2012
    Hello gentleman,

    I have some questions about music theory. I know I could have placed this in the General Instructions section, but I was hoping for some serious answers (from the pro's of course :p ).

    My biggest issue is music theory. I know if you want to have some success as a musician (or maybe better said, better understand things), you should atleast be able to read and write music notes and stuff like that.

    What else is something that a musician should really know to help him / her improve playing a instrument?

    P.S. pardon my English, it's not my native language :p
  2. I'm not one of the Berklee bass department folks, but I've been making a living with a bass in my hands for more than 40 years. I would respectfully suggest that everything matters - theory, history, technique, ear training and memorization . (Don't forget deportment, dress, language, attitude and hygiene). In my world, reading hasn't been nearly as important as theory and ear training; I'll only do one or two reading gigs a year, but pretty much every non-theater gig I play will have material I don't know. So a combination of theory (knowing what chords are likely to be used in any given key/progression), history (knowing tunes - lots of tunes - in all sorts of styles), ear training (being able to hear what's actually being played and moving to an appropriate note quickly) have kept me on more gigs than anything else.

    As an aside, though, being able to read pretty much whatever is put in front of me - notation (in both treble and bass clef), chord charts, number charts, piano scores or whatever - have been instrumental both in getting and keeping a heck of a lot of work over the years...
    Garret Graves and Klonk like this.
  3. Steve Bailey

    Steve Bailey

    Feb 15, 2013
    Dave pretty much sums it up! Very eloquently I might add!
  4. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    For me, knowing how to read and write music is the only reason I'm able to keep making a decent living at it at age 52. At least 3 or 4 times a month, sometimes more, I have to read. Plus I make some extra scratch writing charts and arranging horns for my band and other acts I work with.

    Also, everyone asks what kind of shortcuts can you take to learning how to play music, and theory is the very best shortcut in the world. Things that take many others a good while to figure out will come much quicker to you if you know theory.
  5. Thomas Kievit

    Thomas Kievit Guest

    May 19, 2012
    Great, I will keep that in mind. Thanks guys :)
  6. And I wouldn't want you to think that I implied that reading isn't important - quite a few gigs have come my way over the years specifically because I can read.

    It's just that for the last few years, it hasn't been a necessity in my day-to-day work. The vast majority of the charts that I see in the studio are number charts, with chord charts a distant second. I think I've only seen notation a couple of times in the last year.
  7. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    Didn't get that from your previous post at all, Dave. I took it to mean you weren't getting many reading gigs these days but you appreciated what it did for you.
  8. Nickweissmusic

    Nickweissmusic Knows all intervals from one Fred, to Juan octave Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2014
    San Diego, CA
    I teach lessons and perform live music in and around San Diego CA. Sometimes I even make money doing it!
    How much "theory" you need to know to have success in music is an interesting question. Here is the simple answer: you need to know enough theory to explain, communicate, and remember the music you want to play or create.

    Here's the long answer:

    If you are looking for a serious career in music, I would make connecting ear training to theory a priority. Stop thinking about "theory" as a thing- think of it as a way to decode and document music that you hear. Music can and does exist without theory and written notes, but it can't exist without ears to ear it. A good instructor will put your ear training in terms of notes and chord progressions... AKA music theory.

    You must be able to figure out songs for yourself accurately. So do that... All the time. You simply can't get better without doing it, failing, repeatedly, trying harder, failing harder, and asking a lot of questions. And put it all on paper- so you can remember it and communicate it easily with others. That's how "theory" is supposed to work.

    I can't say enough how everything comes back to your ears and how quickly you can hear, analyze, and output music... even if you have something to read to help you out. Great musicians don't read mechanically, they interpret on the fly, because the notes mean more than just a fingering. I recommend humming or singing everything you can and want to learn, even if you're an awful singer. Try to sight sing every piece of music you can- hey, you can't get worse, and you'll probably get a lot better. When you are learning a chord chart, be able to arpeggiate every chord in your head or voice as well as on your instrument, and learn, think, hum and play every mode that fits with each chord. Theory and written music makes this process easier to predict, communicate and remember.

    If you're an undergrad this all may seem impossible, at least it did for me, but I assure you, when I'm tutoring college and grad students, even though I can't read through scores like I used to, I can solve every problem way quicker than my college days... with my ears. And I'm talking Beethoven and Wagner and other really complex stuff, and I listen to those guys about 3 times a year on my own :)

    As a pro I use theory every day to figure out and transcribe music for students, to arrange music for the gigs I play, and to figure out new sounds I don't understand yet. And I use solfeggio all the time :)
  9. Jefff


    Aug 14, 2013
    This question always feels like, "how much language should I know to be able to enjoy reading"

    As much as your brain can hold.
  10. Thomas Kievit

    Thomas Kievit Guest

    May 19, 2012
    ... :D:D:D

  11. Danny Morris

    Danny Morris Berklee Bass Department

    Feb 15, 2013
    I once asked guitarist Pat Metheny what he would look for in a bassist if he were to advertise for one. He said the bassist must play in tune. Then he offered this concept which is both paradoxical and brilliant..
    he said,
    " I want a bassist who is completely versed in jazz/be-bop harmony yet doesn't want to play a note of it."
  12. zontar


    Feb 19, 2014
    Exactly--as much as you can--and learn it as well as you can so that when it's time to play--you just play, and it's there.

    Same as with language.
  13. ynagohamluos


    May 28, 2015
    Another question. Sorry, I am new to this.
    Hi guys, I a new to this and have an important questions. I am a female novice bassist. I have been paying good money to get some theory down before I play at jams. I love playing Blues. However, I just got laid off my job and can't afford lessons for much longer. Sometimes (like yesterday) I feel like my coach is just focused on getting his money and don't learn much. I am frustrated that I am throwing precious money out the window and that I may not be learning much more than if I just did it on my own. Is there anyone out there who can help with some suggestions. I am pretty serious as a student. Does one need an (expensive) coach to be good at Bass? And where one cannot afford it, what resources would you recommend for both electric and standup?
    Musicians are some of the kindest peeps I have met, and I thank you in advance for your kind input. SOS! (I love Bass!)
  14. TedH

    TedH Supporting Member

    Dec 6, 2014
    Westchester, NY
    You have the opportunity to be your own best instructor! Hopefully by now you've moved on from your current teacher, and there is a ton of free lessons, etc. online now. My advice would be go that route and play with others who can help answer questions if money is a concern. I'm in the Berklee online program and honestly, the biggest takeaways are becoming more self-aware of how you play and add to the song. The notes and scales are there for everyone; application and variation come from playing a lot. Studybass.com and Scott Devine have a lot of free videos that are quite insightful as a starter.
  15. ynagohamluos


    May 28, 2015
    Thank you, TedH. I have just seen your post.
  16. ynagohamluos


    May 28, 2015
    Thanks again TedH. I have learned AND progressed so much more from the links you gave me. Bless your heart.
  17. ynagohamluos


    May 28, 2015
    Thank you all dialoguers for everything..your wisdom and references...Thank you!
  18. ynagohamluos


    May 28, 2015
    Hi all, please, could you share any information resource-wise on harmony and walking bass lines? (books, Internet sites, personal experiences, apps??? etc).
    Thanks in advance.
  19. Danny Morris

    Danny Morris Berklee Bass Department

    Feb 15, 2013
    on harmony and walking basslines....I was working with a student yesterday who wanted to improve their concept of walking bass..We put on Red Garlands version of "Please Send me Someone To Love"..first chord Bb7..bass walks an arpeggio ascending using a major 7th (A natural)...2nd chord IV chord Eb 7..bass plays Eb to E natural back to Eb...student says, "THOSE NOTES AREN'T EVEN IN THOSE CHORDS AND THEY SOUND INCREDIBLE"... I remembered first learning to play bass and purchasing Rufus Reids The Evolving Bassist..in that book sandwiched between arpeggio studies were a few pages of walking basslines that sounded like stuff I was hearing on jazz recordings...The point is, as is stated above in this hip thread, you indeed are your own best teacher.. discovery rules as the method of learning, and application will ensue given playing experiences, trial and error, haha, yet remember what you think might be in an academic analysis an incorrect note, might actually be the hippest sounding thing on the planet for that particular time and place...
    recommend listening, honing your taste and craft, working with any book, working with lots of recordings, and mostly, playing lots of music..your style will appear, your technique will grow, your musicianship will mature....most of all, enjoy the ride...with your inquisitive nature it sounds like your head is in the right place..Cheers!
    Brian Wright, isky and Thomas Kievit like this.
  20. ynagohamluos


    May 28, 2015