Touch of Hum | Bass Music Theory For Beginners – The Complete Guide
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Bass Music Theory For Beginners – The Complete Guide

Bass Music Theory For Beginners – The Complete Guide

There’s no doubt that having a natural musical ability is one thing that makes you a great bass player. However, there’s a lot more to it than just that, and understanding the technical side of bass and music theory is just as important as having a natural talent for music. Understanding bass music theory will help you be able to read and write music, as well as improvise with much more ease.

Music theory, as the name implies, is the theory of how music works and why different techniques create different sounds. It tries to explain why things like harmonies, melodies, and rhythms sound so pleasing to the ear. Someone may have a natural gift for basketball, but if they take the time to study the techniques and science behind it, then this will only make them a better basketball player. The same goes for music. You may naturally have a talent for playing the bass but studying the music theory behind it will only make you even better.

In this article, I will go over the basics of bass music theory for beginners and give you a complete guide with all the tools you need to become a great bass player.

How to Read Standard Notation for the Bass Clef Staff

When playing the bass, any standard notation sheet music you read from will always be in the bass clef staff. Because of this, it is important that one of the first things you do when you decide to learn how to play the bass is to learn and memorize the notes of the bass clef staff.

This staff consists of five black lines with four white spaces in between them, and these lines and spaces are where each of the notes sits. The order of the notes on a bass clef staff starting at the lowest note, which is also the note that sits on the bottom line, is: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. As you can see, the notes go in alphabetical order, stopping when it gets to G and starting back over at A. Because of this, it is fairly easy to figure out which note goes where as long as you know that the bottom line note is a G.

However, there are some helpful acronyms to help you remember the order of the notes that sit on the lines as well as the order of the notes that sit on the spaces. These acronyms will help you memorize the notes more easily and be able to determine a note quicker just by looking at it. The order of the notes that sit on the lines in a bass clef are G, B, D, F, A. The acronym to help you remember these notes is “Great Big Dogs Fight Animals.” The order of the notes that sit on the spaces in a bass clef are A, C, E, G. The acronym to help you remember these notes is “All Cows Eat Grass.”

How to Read Tab for the Bass

Similar to classic guitars, bass guitars often use a type of sheet music called tablature, otherwise known as tab. Unlike standard notation, tab uses numbers instead of notes. A bass tab will have four horizontal lines stacked on top of each other which are meant to represent the four strings of your bass. Beginning with the string with the lowest pitch at the bottom, the order of the lines in tab are E, A, D, G. Luckily, there’s a helpful acronym you can use to memorize this too. The acronym is “Every Angry Dog Growls.”

The numbers that are placed on the lines represent the frets of the bass and will range from either 0-20 or 0-24 depending on how many frets your bass has. This means that if you see a number 2 on the bottom, or E, line, you should play the second fret on the E string. Tablature is slightly easier to read and follow than standard notation is, but both are still important to know how to read in order to understand the bass and its music theory better.

How to Read a Time Signature

Now you know how to read both standard notation and tablature for bass, but there is still another important part of a music staff that you must know how to read in order to be able to play the notes correctly. That thing is the time signature.

The time signature tells you how many beats are in a measure and what the value of each note is. It will appear as two numbers stacked on top of each other, and you can find it at the far left side of a staff. The top number is what tells you how many beats are in a measure, while the bottom number tells you the value of each note.

Four over four is one of the most common time signatures that you’ll see in sheet music, so we’ll use that one as an example. The top number four means that there are four beats per measure. The bottom number four means that the quarter note is the note that gets a single beat. This means that each measure can hold four quarter notes. If you were counting out the beats in a four over four time signature, it would be counted out like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 3, 4, and so on.

Understanding Intervals


Understanding Intervals

You now know the basics of how to read standard notation, tablature, and time signatures. Since we’ve covered all the basics of the music staff, it’s time to learn about intervals which is the distance between two notes. The bass only has four strings, but those four strings allow you to cover all types of intervals. There are major intervals, minor intervals, augmented intervals, and diminished intervals.

Major and minor intervals are the two most commons ones and the ones that you will probably find yourself using the most. In a major interval, you move up one entire note. For example, in C Major, you would move from C to D, and that would be a major interval. A minor interval, on the other hand, only moves up a half step. So rather than going from C to D in C Major, you’d move from C to C sharp or D flat. C sharp and D flat are the exact same note on the bass, so what you choose to call the note in a minor interval is completely up to you.

Augmented and diminished intervals are much less common, but it is still useful to know what they are in case you happen to come across them. In an augmented interval, you move up one and a half notes, or a half note higher than a major interval. In a diminished interval, you move up half a step less than a minor interval, or a quarter step. For example, when you make a diminished interval starting at note C, rather than becoming C sharp (C#) or D flat (Db), it would become either C double sharp (C##) or D double flat (Dbb).

Understanding Scales

Scales are an essential part of music theory for every type of musician to know and understand, not just bass players. A scale is a set of notes arranged in different patterns or intervals. If a scale has notes that go up in pitch, it is an ascending scale. If it has notes that down in pitch, it is a descending scale. Major scales are scales that go up in major intervals. For example, a C Major scale would look like this: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

A C Major scale is a great example of a simpler major scale, but if you take a scale like G Major, then you will find that there is one note that is a sharp. A G Major scale looks like this: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. The reason for this is that major scales follow the following sequence: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone.

Major scales are not the only types of scales that are out there though. Similar to how there are different types of intervals, there are also different types of scales. In addition to major scales, there are also minor scales, which go up in minor intervals. Do you see how all of these terms begin to tie in together? For a minor scale, you should follow this sequence: tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone.

So if we were to create a C Minor scale, it would look like this: C, D, D#, F, G, G#, A#, C. Keep in mind that D# is the same thing as Fb, so if you wanted to, you could also write the C Minor scale in this format: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. Both scales mean the same exact thing, so it’s all about personal preference. Just remember that all major scales move up a major interval as they go along, and all minor scales move up a minor interval as they go along.

Understanding Root Notes

Before I go into the explanation of what a chord is, it is important for you first to understand what a root note is because a root note is an essential part of every chord. Every single chord has one note single note that it is derived from or that it starts at, and this note is called the root note. So, if we were to play a C Major chord where the chord is derived from the C note, then C would be the root note.

It is generally very easy to determine what the root note of a chord is because it’s right there in the chord’s name. The root note of a C Major chord is C, and so is the root note of a C Minor chord. Just like the root note of a G Major chord would be G. Whatever note the chord begins on is what the root note is.

Understanding Chords

Now that we have an understanding of what root notes are and how they tie into chords, let’s talk about what exactly a chord is and how to play one. Playing a chord is when you play multiple notes at once, creating a new tone with the combination of them. There are lots of common chords, the C Major chord is one of them, as well as one you will probably see pretty frequently in bass music.

The way that chords are constructed is by stacking thirds. I’ll give an example. If we were to play a C Major chord, we would look at the C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) and start at the very beginning of it with the C note. We would then skip over D to E and skip over F to G, leaving us with this chord: C, E, G. This is a C Major chord.

The combination of thirds that are used is what determines which chord you are playing. Let’s say that we wanted to create an E Minor chord. We would start at E, skip over F to G, and skip over a to B, leaving us with E, G, B. This is an E Minor chord.


As you can see, there is a lot that goes into the music theory of playing the bass. Taking the time to learn bass music theory and understand all of the technicalities of chords, scales, and intervals, as well as learning how to read both standard notation and bass tablature will make you a much better bass player in the long run.

Some bass players may argue that knowing the technicalities of music theory may hinder your creativity and ability to express yourself, but it is quite the opposite. Knowing the basics of music theory opens up the door for you to build upon that and continue to evolve as a musician. Remember, music theory is not a strict set of rules that you must follow when learning to play the bass, but a set of tools that you can use to help build upon the musical talent that you already have.

I hope that after reading this article, you will have a clearer understanding of bass music theory and feel inspired to try out some of these chords and techniques yourself.

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