If you’ve spent any time on internet message boards about bass or guitar you’ve probably witnessed a heated debate about whether or not it's necessary to read musical notation, and the musical validity of bass tab. I’m going to give you my opinion on the matter.
I think both forms of notation have their place. Let me outline the pros and cons of each form of written music for bass:
The Pros of Bass Tab
Bass tab notation is easy to learn. It doesn’t require knowing note names or rhythm. All you need is what you learned in your first few years of life: numbers. This gets beginners playing familiar basslines quickly and helps maintain their motivation to play and practice.
Tab shows you the exact fingering to use for playing something.
It’s easy to distribute electronically. It can be written without any special software using plain ASCII characters.
It’s everywhere on the internet.
The Cons of Bass Tab
Tab isolates you from the rest of the musical world. Only bassists and guitarists speak this language of fret numbers.
It holds you back from learning the note names on the fretboard and the notes of keys, scales, and chords.
Tab tells you one specific fingering to use when other possibilities are available. Many tabs will have needlessly poor fingerings.
Rhythm isn't easy to read if at all. This is a big drawback since bass is a rhythm instrument. Rhythm is an essential part of bass playing.
Usually tab can’t be read at first sight. Tab needs to be worked out by hearing the music first and then piecing it together.
The Pros of Standard Musical Notation
Standard notation forces you to learn the notes on the fretboard, and within keys, chords, and scales.
Standard notation is much more visual giving you a better sense of pitch, pitch relationships, time, and rhythm.
Standard notation can be read at sight with little foreknowledge of the music.
Standard notation is common to all instruments and gives you access to the language most musicians use and understand.
The Cons of Standard Musical Notation
Standard notation is more complex than bass tab. This makes it take longer to learn how to read it and requires consistent practice and effort.
Often no fingering is given. This leaves the reader on his or her own to know how to go about fingering the music.
Writing in standard notation electronically requires special notation software.
Standard notation is harder to come by for free on the internet.
Do I Have to Learn to Read Music?
If all you want to do is learn to play other people’s basslines for your own enjoyment, then the answer is: No, you don’t need to learn to read. And, there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you want to play in an original band or cover band (rock, blues, funk, etc.) or just for your own fun, then the answer is: It’s not expected of you, but it couldn’t hurt. It’d most likely help in your overall understanding of music.
If you plan on playing styles such as jazz, then it is expected of you to know how to read.
If you plan to play gigs where you show up not knowing what you’re going to play jazz casuals, weddings, studio recording sessions then: Yes, you should be prepared for someone putting notes in front of you.
If you want to thoroughly study music written over the past few hundred years, then the answer is: Yes, you should read music.
If you want to study music written for other instruments, then the answer is: Yes, you need to read. For instance, many bassists practice solos by saxophone players, study rhythms of drummers, and play music written for cello.
If you want to write music down for other instruments to play, then the answer is: Yes, it is essential.
If you want to audition for a music school, then: Yes, it is mandatory.
Reading music is not required for playing an instrument. Many great players can’t read music. But, many great players can read. You don’t have to read English (or whatever your native tongue is) to speak it. But, think about how much being able to read a language aids you in your day-to-day life. It’s the same with music.
I’m not going to tell you you absolutely must learn how to read music. That’s a choice you need to make based on your own personal goals. But, I am going to highly encourage it because I know it will make you a better musician and that’s why I’m making this website, after all.
Reading music is not that hard, but it does take time, patience, and work. There’s no instant gratification. It’s frustrating to be playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ when you want to be playing your favorite song by Rush.
You will gain so much more insight into music even if you can only read standard notation poorly.
If you’re serious about playing music, I highly suggest taking the time to learn to read standard notation in addition to bass tab. I have yet to come across a musician who could read well and regretted learning to do so. On the other hand, I have met many musicians who regretted not learning to read standard notation.
I’m not down on those people who don’t want to read when it’s not required of them. I think it’s fine as long as they have weighed all the pros and cons and have made an informed choice. I am down on those who want to be career musicians but don’t want to read at all. Those two choices don't match at all.