This Language Called Music

“Music is the vernacular of the human soul.” –Geoffrey Latham     

Music is a language.  It has rules and needless to say, if you want to be considered to be a good bass guitar player, you are going to have to learn the language of music – tonal principles, harmonic structures, rhythmic considerations, song forms, melodic permutations, etc – in order to develop the skills required to improvise.  For the great unwashed improvisation is the ability play on your instrument what you hear in your head; responding and reacting on the fly through the continuous flow of non-stop music.

 Miles Davis

“I spend most of my time these days learning short two bar phrases.”

– Miles Davis

The concept of improvisation comes from the study of jazz theory.   A common misconception is that when great musicians improvise, they do so will little to no preparation.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  In order to acquire the skills of improvisation you have to learn everything there is to know about individual chords, chord sequences, key modulations and so forth.  This requires many years of practice- there are no quick fixes or shortcuts!  Another misconception lies in the presumption that just because you study jazz theory you will have to become a jazz player.  This is not necessary.  The reason for this is easily seen in the similarities of the fundamental building blocks that jazz theory shares with so many styles of music including classical, rock, funk, fusion, blues, pop and world music.   However, the opposite of this is not applicable; limiting yourself to a study of rock music for example will not yield the same results and as a consequence, will not be relevant to the wider spectrum of musical styles that jazz theory influences.

Meaning of Language 

 “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.”

–Stevie Wonder

A topic of discussion that arises again and again is the comparison between verbal and musical languages.  Many of the similarities between the two are relevant to bass guitar players seeking to transform themselves into complete musicians.  If you haven’t studied a second language then you have probably forgotten how you actually learned to speak, read and write your own native language.    

In the beginning stages, learning a verbal language is usually achieved by imitating simple words and phrases and linking them with their meanings.  Once this is understood the student begins to start analysing how sentences are constructed.  The simple rules of grammar come into play explaining the common usage of nouns, verbs and adjectives.  After these basic skills start to take shape through the repetition of practice, the student slowly begins to assimilate the material and starts constructing basic sentences expressing his/hers own thoughts and ideas.  In language studies, reading usually follows this stage.  As one starts to learn how to read the written word, the level of difficulty is usually set a little lower in order to even out the two different skill sets.

The process for the beginning music student being taught formally is often the complete opposite to this.  Instead of learning the basic fundamentals of their instrument first and learning to understand the auditory importance of what they are actually playing, the new music student is often placed in a position where they are staring at a bunch of notes on a piece of paper struggling to make the connection to their instrument.  Even if they end up becoming adequate readers with this method, they often do not develop a significant musical attachment to what they have learned to replicate.

By borrowing the idea from language studies and developing the concept of learning common useful short and long phrases taken from the lines of all the great jazz players (past and present); studying, dissecting, understanding and analysing all of the different embellishments and harmonic principles used (much like a simple sentence is decorated with adjectives and adverbs); subtracting, adding and then editing will enable the student to slowly assimilate the language of music for themselves and begin to create lines expressing his/hers own personal thoughts and ideas.

Learning to improvise is a vast subject that requires learning a large vocabulary- much like learning a language.  The preparation for the understanding of jazz theory is potentially a long process.  In reality it is an ongoing puzzle- once a smaller portion of the puzzle is solved it unlocks a bigger portion of the puzzle and as a result awakens your inquisitive mind to solve further problems.  Thankfully – as bass guitar players – understanding this learning process will help us to continually improve and grow, while at the same time quenching our own personal interests and pursuits for a lifetime to come.

As always I like to hear your views, so feel free to post your comments below.

Unitl next time…


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2 Responses to This Language Called Music

  1. KC says:

    “This requires many years of practice- there are no quick fixes or shortcuts!”

    Therein lies the biggest obstacle to so many people with subjects beyond music as well.

    The understanding of the “process” and having faith in it is key to reaching one’s goals.

    Otherwise it seems to be reduced to how one can get over on other people without putting in the time to reach a deep level of understanding and broad level of expertise.

    Ask anyone “how many books have you read this year” and you will see where the value or lack of value is placed on the intellectual process.

    Thanks for your articles,
    Best regards,

  2. Joe Hubbard says:

    Hi KC

    Thanks for your post! The key is getting people to realise that the process is more important than the product. Most aspiring bass players put all the emphasis on the end result instead of developing it properly. It’s a shame because many waste years of precious time doing this; it is clearly an example of how the way of the tortoise is superior to the way of the rabbit.

    Best- Joe

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