Hi all,

It’s been a while since I posted a piece so thanks for hanging around. I’ve been doing a few gigs recently which have required notation-reading skills and so I was inspired to write about learning to read music, if you don’t already.

I’ve mentioned my father many times in my posts but he was an amazing sight-reader and although he was never pushy, he always encouraged me to “read” music, or at least be familiar with how notation looked and the kinds of information contained within manuscript. Such was his influence that during my formative years learning and playing Madness songs, I had all of the transcription books for all of their albums. madness picI couldn’t read the music but I could use the books to help me learn the bass lines and find those notes which I couldn’t hear quite well enough to pick out. This meant that I was already forming a connection between the music I was hearing and playing and the notation on the pages of those books. Some notes and rhythmic patterns became familiar quickly, for example the low E on a bass guitar being the first ledger line under the stave in bass clef, became instantly recognisable.

Over the next few years, I immersed myself in manuscript books and transcription books, all before the invention of the Internet and Musicnotes.com! Recognising and reading the notes came significantly faster than the rhythm patterns. The notes on the lines or in the spaces are definite and don’t change, (within the clef) but the rhythmic combinations and sub-divisions are vast and took some long hours of study before getting them ingrained in my head.

Bass notation

Bass notation

In my career, it’s not all that often that strict reading of notation is called for. Often I’m composing a bass part to a track or learning a song I’m already pretty familiar with.

On these occasions, It’s usually only necessary to scribble down a chord progression or song structure so I know how long the verses are or where the chorus comes. If I’m familiar with a bass part, I may just make some notes on the song structure, especially if the band are playing a different version of a song or segueing into another piece without stopping.

Having said that, there have been occasions where reading the notation has become vital, such as stepping in to a function band as a dep or performing in the pit for theatre productions. Being able to read music has certainly enabled me to find work which would otherwise not be available to me.

Like most things, without regular practice you can find your skills waning and so I try to have some notation around at all times. I currently have a Broadway¬†musical manuscript on my desk as I’m playing a

show later in the year. I could spend ages learning the tracks by ear but if the Musical Director makes any changes once rehearsals start, I would have no way of remembering the changes. At least this way, I can notate the changes as I go.

Now, I’m not suggesting you bust your boots learning to read music. It takes time, effort and practice BUT I do think you should spend some time getting comfortable with notation, how it looks and what it can tell you¬†about a piece. Take a bass line you know well and seek out the manuscript. Something that you can sing in your head and you know well will make the connection between what you hear and what you see on the page much easier. Remember, as working musicians, we need to make ourselves as employable as we can and that means having ALL the skills that might be required to do the job. You wouldn’t hire an electrician who could ONLY do lights, right?

Being able to read music will set you apart from other bass players and could get you a job that would’ve previously eluded you. If I wasn’t on holiday next week, I would’ve been reading a gig with Bucks Fizz!!

See you on the flip side!!