There are a number of different ways in which you can know a scale or any other musical pattern. When I explain a scale or pattern, we will look at it in several ways. The more ways in which you know and understand a scale, the better off you will be.
Some of these ways of learning a musical pattern may take five minutes of study, while other may take years. There is a lot to know. If it didn't take time and effort, everybody would be a great musician! Be patient with yourself.
Let’s look at these ways of knowing scales and other note patterns...
Learning the sound a pattern makes is the most important thing to pick up. After all, in music the sound is the final result we are seeking.
For many people learning the sound a pattern makes is what takes the longest. The more you play and practice, the more the sounds of music start popping out at you. You have to listen to what you play and practice in order to absorb it. Playing bass is not just about wiggling your fingers. It's about making sound. Training your ear will be a big part of your musical development.
By Interval Construction
An interval is the distance between two notes. (See musical intervals.) Each scale has its own unique pattern of intervals. This is really the key to each scale’s sound. A scale’s intervallic makeup is what makes it sound the way it does. The better you know intervals, the easier it will be to learn scales and other patterns. Make sure you learn the basic musical intervals.
Off of Each Root Note
Any scale or pattern can be started on any one of the 12 notes of the musical alphabet. For any pattern there are 12 possible root notes. For instance, there are 12 major scales each built on one of music’s 12 notes. There is a C major scale, a C# major scale, a D major scale, and so on.
Sometimes the same scale can be named two different ways. For example, C# major and Db major contain the same pitches. The difference is one uses sharps to name the notes while the other uses flats. Eventually, you should know scales like this both ways.
By Note Name
One important way of knowing a scale is by knowing the note names of the notes within the scale. For example, you should learn that the C major scale contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
Why would you want to know all the note names of a scale?! There are many reasons. The main reason is it will help you find your way around the fretboard a lot faster. It will make reading music easier. And, it will make improvising easier.
Learning all the note names of scales might seem like an insane amount of stuff to memorize. (I can hear you calculating the possibilities in your head!) But, it’s only the first few scales that require some work. After that you’ll experience the snowball effect of learning. You’ll start to think, “Oh, this scale is just like the C major scale with only one different note.” Most scales are just one or two notes different from a few simple scales. So, don’t fear learning all of those note names for each scale. It keeps getting easier and the payoff is huge. I’ll be showing you some ways to memorize the note names of scales as we progress.
By Finger Patterns
When you learn a scale you need to be able to physically play it and locate it on the fretboard. All scales and note patterns form patterns on the bass fretboard. Usually when people talk of learning scales, this is the part on which they focus.
It’s critical to remember scales are not just finger patterns. Don’t get trapped in that frame of mind. Think of them as sound patterns. The finger patterns merely help you access the sound of the scale or pattern. The scales you learn would sound the same on other instruments, too.
Learning musical patterns on string instruments has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest obstacle is the many ways the same pattern can be played. On piano there is one place to play one specific note. On a 4-string bass there might be four. It’s like stacking four piano keyboards on top of one another. Think of the possible combinations of playing a group of 7 notes on 4 pianos.
Another problem with string instruments is the note names are not obvious. On piano all C's look the same and are a breeze to find. On the bass fretboard nothing distinguishes the individual notes. This makes learning the note names more memory intensive.
One advantage of the bass is every pattern is movable up and down the fretboard and on other strings. This makes the physical motions of playing each scale or pattern easier to master and remember. However, this often becomes a crutch for musicians and they often avoid learning patterns in the many other ways I outlined above. Sometimes an advantage creates a disadvantage and vice versa.
The Path of Least Resistance
For me, when I play my brain always takes the path of least resistance to get me to the note I’m imagining. Let’s say I imagine the sound of the 3rd note of the major scale I’m playing in. If I know from memory it’s an E, I can find an E on the fretboard. If I know where it is from a finger pattern, I might use that route. If I know how far away the note is intervalically, I may find it that way.
With practice all of this starts to happen with hardly a thought at all just like when you speak any language with fluency. It’s not as though you’re thinking about all of these aspects with every note you play. You’d go crazy. But, when you are initially learning, all of these approaches help you get to that instinctive, automatic state.
Learning music is similar to learning any task. Think about learning to drive a car. You learned what cars do just from watching they go and stop. You see other people use foot pedals to make a car go and stop. You learn the gas pedal makes the car go and the brake pedal makes it stop. Then you learn to sensitively use these pedals without even looking. It all becomes automatic. You don’t think about all of these fine points before you slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a cat. You just do it because you know it. But, it took all of that initial learning you don't even remember doing to get there. Now think how much more complex driving is beyond the gas and brake pedal alone.
If you study the right things with enough consistent practice, the same automatic behaviors and fluency will happen with music, too. But, you have to do the work.
I believe the more ways you learn about scale patterns, chord patterns, and other note patterns, the better off you'll be and the more creative you'll be. There are reasons why all of these musical concepts exist. Don't fear learning them.