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Musical Theory: Where should I start?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Mike O'Neill, Nov 14, 2005.

  1. Hey there, I'm a new bassist (been playing for about a week) and I've decided that I want to learn musical theory, so that later on I can become a good bassist with an advanced/well practiced technique.

    I can read music, as I learnt it when I played Tuba in my school orchestra, but I wasn't taught any musical theory apart from the rather simplistic "Minor Keys sound sad and Major Keys sound happy" (GCSE Music). The most I understand is the idea of a Root, 3rd and 5th, but only because I can 'see' them stacked on the staff forming a triad.

    I tried reading through Pacman's Surefire Scale Method, but I became disheartened when I realised that I didn't understand most of it.

    Sorry for rambling on, but I'm really confused as to where I should start/what I should do. Any suggestions/advice greatly appreciated. :)
  2. Scot

    Scot Supporting Member

    Mar 20, 2004
    Pacifica, CA, USA
    Hi Mike,

    I'm not sure what your goals are with playing bass and what kind of music you want to play and all that but I'll try to jump in with a couple of suggestions that hopefully will get you running in the right directions.

    It's great that you've already been playing tuba and can read music notation in bass clef. Also, the function the tuba plays is the same as the bass so you've already got the "bass player mindset". :)

    I would suggest you begin with learning the notes on the fingerboard of your bass (if you haven't already). You can start with the open strings and the first 4 frets starting at the nut and moving towards the bridge. Once you start to get a handle on knowing the notes I would try to read through some bass clef music. Keep in mind that bass music (electric and double bass) is written one ocatave higher than it sounds so if you play the E string on a four string bass that would be notated on the first ledger line below the staff.

    It's also great you know triads. Even more complex chords wiht upper extensions can usually be redused to triads. If you take a C note and then play an E minor triad over the top of that you're playing a C maj7. If you take a C triad and then play a B minor triad over that you're playing a C maj 7 (#11).

    So I think the trick will be to take all that knowledge you already have and apply it to the new stuff you learn.
  3. SeanE


    Sep 20, 2005
    Here are two really good sites for basic theory. The second site leans towards songwriter theory. Even if you don't write songs, it's very helpful as a bassplayer because you will often be asked to invent basslines and improvise over lead sheets. It's helpful to be able to determine a key from a seeing or hearing a chord progression.


  4. Thanks for all the replies everyone! :)

    Yeah, I browsed through some of the musical theory links, and I'm definitely considering getting a teacher if I can afford it.

    Learning the notes of the fretboard is something I'm currently doing at the moment with the 5th the 7th and the 12th frets memorized already (the easy ones :p). I think I definitely have the bass player mindset, I just need to get the technique and theory down.

    Once again, thanks for the pointers guys. :D
  5. Wooten Wannabe

    Wooten Wannabe

    Nov 28, 2004
  6. That first link starts with the sentence "All songs are played in a key." Now correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't that be some songs?

    Oh, and http://www.musictheory.net/ is pretty good.
  7. My advice, for what it's worth, is the following:

    (1) Start with Andrew Surmani, et. al., Essentials of Music Theory, (Alfred). It comes in three separate volumes, or one complete edition. Also, ear training CDs are available for each volume.

    (2) Then read Keith Wyatt and Carl Schroder, Harmony and Theory, (Musician's Institute Press).

    If you finish these books you will know everything you need to know about music theory to be a working musician. Good luck.
  8. Thanks for all the information, it'll sure come in handy! :cool:

    I'll be sure to try and get my hands on those books as well, Blues. :)
  9. Mike, you can get both books very inexpensively from Amazon. The Surmani book complete is $10.00 (more if you want the ear training CDs). A suggestion: search for this book by title not author. The Wyatt and Schroder book is $12.21. I know your prices in England will be different, but presumably comparable. Best of luck.

    Mark Bruso
    (Although Blues is just fine since that is the only music I truly love.)
  10. Thanks Mark :)

    Picking up on something that I missed earlier on in the thread, namely what sort of music I'm into/want to play, well I'm into rock, progressive rock and psychedelic stuff mainly (also some punk artists). The sort of music I listen to and would one day like to write/compose is big on experimentation. That's another reason why I'd like to get to grips with theory, to learn the 'language' of music so that I can draw in other influences.

    As an example of what I mean, I really like the sounds and harmonies of Russian Folk Music (Just one of a number of musical tastes I have), and would love to one day bring them into my music and mix them with other influences. Obviously, in order to do that I'd need a lot of theory under my belt. :bassist:
  11. Mike,

    Here are my feelings about theory. My wife is a famous blues singer. She has a major blues label recording contract and is represented by one of the most prestigious blues booking agencies in the world. She was named one of the ten greatest women in the history of Chicago blues and has been nominated for many prestigious blues awards. For this reason I am exposed to every segment of the blues music business. In blues, theory is probably downplayed more than most other fields of music. And yet it comes up often enough that you don't want to be ignorant of it. It has been my experience that many of the best blues musicians know a surprising amount of theory. They will tell you that they don't, but I know from much personal experience that they do.

    My knowledge of theory has helped me out on a number of occasions. And I have never felt like anyone looked down on me when they realize that I know some music theory. Quite the contrary, most professionals I know in any field respect someone who takes their craft seriously enough to gain a solid understanding of it. Don't get me wrong, if you start to sound like an academic who is interested in theory for theory's sake you are likely to incur derision from working musicians. But if you know the basics they will take you a long way.

    Personally, I dislike feeling I should know something I don't. And I often feel grateful for knowing what I do. The other day someone was showing me a blues run he had made up on the guitar. He said he was using the blues scale in G. I watched his fingering and thought to myself, "actually he is using the G minor pentatonic scale because he is not using the b5." Did it hurt me to know the technical difference between the two scales? Not that I am aware of. I was then immediately able to start figuing out what he was doing because I knew the pattern for the scale he was using on the fretboard. Theory should lend assistance to your ear.

    There is an old saying about bathrooms. You may not need them often, but when you do they are damn useful. To me music theory is much the same way.