Music Theory Where Do I Begin

Why learn music theory, and where do I begin?

Posted by

Musical theory can be a great tool for discovering more about the musical possibilities you have as a player. It can help you tremendously in writing better parts/basslines, playing solos and communicating with your band members. But where do you begin when studying musical theory?

The purpose of learning music theory

Before we go into depth about the things you should know and the order in which you should learn them, I first want to emphasize that learning musical theory should never be a goal in itself. You have probably read/heard it a thousand times, but just like English, music is a language that we can use to express ourselves.

Nobody learns a language by simply reading books about grammar. You learn by listening to it a lot, mimicking others and combining different sounds to form words. In this way you develop a feeling for a language. This feeling enables you to instinctively use the right words in the right place.

What grammar simply does, is help you understand these choices and fill in the gaps when your instinct needs a helping hand. In other words, grammar (or in this case musical theory) is a tool you can use to make musical choices.

Why should you learn music theory?

As I mentioned before, don’t study theory just for the sake of it. Study it because you have a certain goal in mind and it might be the tool to archive that goal. If you want to learn more about goal setting check out my article “Get better at bass: Feeling stuck? Do this now!“.

There are numerous benefits a basic understanding of music theory can give you. For example:

  • Music theory can help you rationalize musical decisions.
  • Learning and playing different scales/sounds can inspire your creativity. Which will in turn improve your basslines.
  • If you don’t instinctively feel or know which notes to play, music theory can lend you a helping hand in making these choices.
  • By being aware of why music sounds cohesive and which options are at the disposal of a composer, you can figure music out by ear faster.
  • Knowing basic theory gives you a tool to communicate with your band members about what notes will work, how a certain musical piece is written and what liberties they can take.

Using music theory in your actual playing

The most important reason for studying theory, should always be to make you a better bass player. And specifically one that writes better basslines. A lot of players get lost when studying music theory because they simply don’t know how to apply it to their actual playing. They know a lot of really cool scales, but they really have no way of using it in a real life situation.

In every article I write on I try to give you a hands-on-approach to applying these concepts. Check out my series called “Groove Backpack” for some examples.

Below I made a list of things you should study in order of importance. I also explain why you should learn them.

1. Learn how the tonal system is built and where the notes are on your instrument

In western music we have a 12-tone system. There are only twelve different notes you can choose from. We have the natural notes (the white keys on the piano) and accidentals (the black keys on the piano). When your guitar player tells you he is playing an A, or maybe a C#, it’s your job to not only know what that means, but also where to find it on the neck of your bass (preferably on several places). Some great resources for this are:

2. Learn about intervals

As a bass player the go-to-solution in a lot of situations is playing the root note of a chord. But what is a root note? It has nothing to do with gardening. It does have everything to do with intervals and how notes relate to a chord and to each other. If the piano players asks you if you can play a root fifth pattern, you should be able to know what a root or a fifth is. Check out this page at to learn about intervals

3. Understand what chords are and how they are built

Guitar and piano players combine three or more notes together and play them simultaneously to form chords. Which notes they combine determines what the chord is. It also determines which notes you can play in your basslines. If you want to learn more about chords and how they are built, you can check out these two lessons on These lessons will also explain which notes you can play in your bass lines.

4. What other notes can you use in your basslines?

Next to playing notes that are in the chords, you can also play other notes which aren’t in the chords. These notes are usually derived from a certain scale or mode (a series of notes that fits the harmony). To learn more about these scales/modes, you can check out my articles about them:

If you’ve figured all of this out, there is of course always more to discover. But frankly, you now know the musical theory that can help you in 90 percent of situations. When you also invest time in developing your ear, I’m sure you won’t have any problem functioning in a band.

To summarize

So to summarize what we have discussed, learning theory is not a goal in itself. It can be a great tool to accomplish any musical goal you have. When you have a decent understanding of music theory you can write better basslines and have a tool (or safety net even) that can help you get through any musical situation.

When studying theory always try to apply new musical concepts to a real-life playing situation. Experimentation is key.

The concepts you should learn in order of importance:

  1. You first need to have a basic understanding of which notes there are, and where they are on your instrument.
  2. Then you need to know how different notes relate to each other. Learn about intervals.
  3. After that you can figure out what chords are and how they influence the notes you use in your basslines.
  4. When you have all of that down you might be interested in adding more flavor to your lines by adding extra notes that are in scales and modes.

Inspiration for basslines

If you are looking for some more inspiration for writing better basslines be sure to check out my series called “Groove Backpack“. It contains a lot of different/original grooves and basslines with a video and a transcription. In the accompanying article I also explain why the bassline works. You will probably also enjoy my lesson called: How to write better basslines: The 4 ingredients.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *