How Bass Players Can Improve Their Hearing

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Bass Players can improve their hearing and musical understanding, by modeling how keyboard players learn and practice.

In my previous article – entitled Why Keyboard Players Have The Best Ears – we learned why keyboard players are the go-to guys in any band whenever any question of harmony arises.

We also briefly touched on the fact that there are ear training courses for bass players (and other musicians) that we can take to improve our hearing.

These courses come with a built in price though. And I’m not talking money.

What’s the cost of taking a specific ear training course?

Although there’s usually a financial cost involved, there’s a bigger cost that most musicians don’t consider.

And that hidden cost is one of time.

As we saw in the previous article most keyboard players get their ear training as a natural byproduct of their keyboard

Wouldn’t it be great if us bass players could do that too?

Well you can.

Most keyboard players develop their hearing by playing exercises and tunes. Because a keyboard player’s left and right hand operate independently on a keyboard in a way that is impossible for a bass player, a keyboard player can play chordal material with one hand and rhythmic/melodic material with the other hand.

And it’s this playing of chords and melody, combined with many repetitions over time, that gives the keyboard players their supercharged hearing.

So we’ve identified the two critical components responsible for keyboard players having great hearing, how can we apply that to the bass?

We already know that it’s impossible for a bass player to play bass lines and accompany himself chordally at the same time (I’m deliberately ignoring the technique of ‘tapping’ here).

So we can either pay a guitarist or keyboard player to come and play chords for us at every practice session.

Or we can ‘hire’ a virtual accompanist.

The answer to our problem is a software program called Band in A Box, made by PG Music. The basic version is about $ 130 (you can spend more for the all singing all dancing version with bells and whistles, but for right now the basic version will do you just fine).

How do we use Band In A Box to model a keyboard player’s practice habits?

What we do is this: we take our detailed practice schedule for the week ahead and look at every exercise we’ve got planned.

Then we work out how we can add a harmonic element to that exercise.

Then we program that harmonic element into Band In A Box, and when we’re ready to play that exercise we tap the space bar twice (which starts Band in A Box) and within seconds you’ll be playing through your exercise with chordal accompaniment!

How will doing my normal exercises with chordal accompaniment improve my hearing though?

To achieve the desired effect you have to do two things:

(1) Be aware of what harmony is present (ie is it a major 7th chord, or a dominant 7th? A major chord or a minor chord?) This is so your brain starts associating the ‘sound’ of the chord with the chord name.

(2) You need to do this in every practice session, day after day, week after week, month after month.

If you do this you’ll find that your brain will start to recognize chord sounds and more importantly you’ll know what kind of chord you’ve just heard.

What kind of exercises can I add harmonic content to?

Seriously, just about everything.

If you’re learning a tune, program the chords to the tune.

If you’re learning a slap line find a chord progression that it fits, and program those chords in.

If you’re practicing right hand 16th notes for speed and stamina then program different qualities of chord for each string that you play on.

If you’re playing scales by rote (and you shouldn’t, but that’s another story) then program the chord that the scales fit.

If you put your mind to it you can make ANY exercise musical – which in turn will make you a more musical bass player.

So, what did we learn today?

When you’ve read this article do yourself a favor: re-read it, then make some notes and then read it again. Here’s what you should take away:

By adding harmonic content to every exercise you play on your instrument you will be subconsciously working on developing your ears.

By being aware of when different chord types are sounding – and what these different chord types are – you will be subconsciously training your brain to know the difference between say a major 7th chord and a minor 7th chord.

By consciously and deliberately repeating this day after day, week after week, month after month, you will find that as you develop and improve as a bass player so you will develop and improve your understanding and hearing of music and how it relates to your instrument.

Which in turn will elevate you to a new level of musicianship.

And one day when there’s a harmony question on the bandstand the keyboard player will say: “Hey, I’m programming some sounds, ask the bass player. His ears are as good as mine!”

If you want more bass related info, head over to my how to play bass website where you’ll find video lessons, articles, reviews and much more. There’s also a weekly ezine you can sign up for – in return for signing up you’ll get a PDF file with 5 cool bass lines in – and each week’s ezine features a bass line in music notation and bass tab.

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