We are getting to the business end now where we can a) name notes on the stave, b) find them on the bass and c) recognise different rhythms. Watch this lesson first for a recap: Reading Music On The Bass Guitar: The Very Basics - Note Names And Locations.
Each one of those things is quite easy to do on its own. At first, when you have to do all three at once, your brain will fry! Take your time learning how to do each of these skills and it will all become second nature in time. It is at this point that counting becomes our focus.
Learning to tap your foot on every beat (counting 1, 2, 3, 4 in your head) is vital so that you have a timing grid where you can follow the notes as they pass. Refer to the sheet ‘Reading Music: The Very Basics - Examples’ for some simple lines to get all this information working for you.
For now, when you see whole notes, half notes or quarter notes you don’t need to do anything more complicated than counting 1, 2, 3, 4 like this:
The first note is held for 4 counts, the second bar each note is held for 2 counts and, in the last bar, each note is played on each beat.
There are a few different ways of counting eighth and sixteenth notes.
For eighths notes you can count ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and’. You have just vocalised 8 sounds that match exactly with the 8 eighths notes as they pass by. The numbers (1, 2, 3 and 4) are played ‘on the beat’ and the ‘ands’ (+) are ‘offbeats’. This is an important concept as a strong sense of rhythm is really about how confident you are at nailing where notes are played in time (that is what rhythm is!!).
Many people count sixteenth notes this way: ‘one ee and a, two ee and a, three ee and a, four ee and a’. I actually never learnt this way and I’ll get into that in a second.
By doing the above you have vocalised the 16 sixteenth notes as they go by and it is much easier than saying ‘ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16’ really fast. Try it, it’s never going to work...
All you are doing when counting in the two ways I have illustrated is subdividing the beats. I learnt to read on the bass when I was 11. I didn’t know this method and the way I did it was to just take each beat as it came. I would tap my foot at the required tempo as a default and when any tricky rhythms came my way I would then subdivide the beats usually by keeping my foot going on quarter notes and then, in my head, going something like ‘da da da da da da da da’ for eighth notes or ‘da ga da ga, da ga da ga, da ga da ga, da ga da ga’ for sixteenth notes. Yes you may be wondering if I got strange looks for muttering such things but remember this was going on silently in my head.
Whatever method you use, you are subdividing beats and this will allow you to decode those funny blobs you see on a musical stave into real music.
In time what happens is that you internalise the visual signal of the rhythms and notes you see on the music and make a connection to the sound they make. This happens after repetition and that is how the process becomes automatic.
This entire lesson sets out to explain and intellectualise the process. In reality, musical freedom when reading comes from not having to think about all the elements you must learn. It’s a slight catch 22 as you do need to know what all the symbols mean. With a bit of practice it all starts to make sense. Remember, nothing is difficult; just unfamiliar.