One of the most common questions that I get asked by students is “Do I need to be able to read music?” Unless you intend to do nothing but play cover songs or original music that isn’t written out, then the answer is no. But if you want to continue your development as a bass player and get more gigs, the answer is yes. But it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Here’s some background on tablature, ear training and written music.
Tablature is often derided by musicians who can read music. That has some merit, since modern tab doesn’t contain rhythmic information. But in reality, tablature came first. In the Renaissance era and before, there was little or no standard in how music was represented on a page. Tablature was one of the first attempts. It applied most to fretted instruments of the day: Lute, Guitar, Mandolin, Viols (ancestors to the modern violin family), etc. Here’s a link to some early tablature and it was done. Modern tablature has, for the most part, dropped out the rhythmic part and left only fret numbers and strings. Modern music notation begins right after this point. Modern notation is able to specify rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo, etc. But just as spoken English has nuances that are difficult to write out, in many genres of music, there are areas open to interpretation.
Music Notation began in earnest during the Renaissance and was refined over the next couple of millennia. Notes were assigned to a specific part of the five line staff, different clefs were used according to instrument range, articulation marks and dynamics were added and rhythmic notation developed. This gave us a very good representation of the music as it was to be performed.
I was actually fortunate enough to have started taking music lessons in the time when no one ever questioned whether you should learn to read music or not – you just did. But as music became more and more accessible to anyone, shortcuts like tablature appeared.
Playing by ear
Ear training is another vital skill in music. For the jazz musician, it is paramount. Look into the biographies of the jazz greats past and present and you will quickly find that they emphasize ear training usually through transcriptions of important jazz solos, tunes, etc. As Charlie Parker once said: “Learn the changes. Then forget them and play.” Parker was referring to being free to improvise but after you have internalized the changes and melody. The best way to develop you ear is by transcribing tunes and solos from the greats but any transcribing is helpful. I had a couple of large notebooks filled with transcriptions from my college days. Unfortunately, most of them were lost later. This goes for all genres of music – not just jazz.
In summary, reading music is important in all areas of music, not just jazz. The classical music benefits greatly from seeing the music and knowing what it will sound like just before he begins to play it. There were some notable musicians who learned to read after becoming very proficient on their instrument. The main one for bass players is Jaco Pastorius. And he remarked often that it was difficult learning after having played so long but he knew the only way he could advance his playing further was learning to read music.