Steve Lawson has been described as “one of the most gifted solo bass players on the planet” and has published more than a dozen albums over the last decade. He teaches bass guitar and runs “Beyond Bass Camp” masterclasses. He’s known as a thought leader on the future of the music industry and music education, and earlier this year took part in the Future of Musicianship event in London.

He somehow managed to find time alongside all that to answer a few questions from us on our current topic of playing by ear.

Steve, thanks for joining us here on Let’s jump right in – could you tell us a bit about your own music education growing up, and what part aural skills and playing by ear had in your learning the bass?

I started out – as so many kids do in the UK – with instrumental lessons in school, on the classical model. So it was 15-minute lessons, with no ear training at all, on violin and then trumpet. There was no attempt at all to connect what I was playing with what I was hearing outside the classroom, and I, like so many, gave up.

I then got a bass guitar for my 14th birthday, and did the opposite. Set about learning from friends, trying to get bits from records. But I struggled because all the language I had about music was about dots on a page, not sounds in my head. So I had no systematic way to connect what I was playing with how it sounded, without first going through dots… I had some really messed up ideas about music for quite a few years after I first started playing bass! 

We started this series on the site with an post arguing that any musician can learn to play by ear, and that the best way to do so is to try, and try again. Is that something you agree with? Or do you think musicians are naturally born as “by ear” or “from sheet music” players?

I’m not a fan of blaming nature for any of our musical biases. I think it’s far more random than that, and for most people the problem is about the method of learning, or more specifically, the appropriateness of the teaching.

I struggled because all the language I had about music was about dots on a page, not sounds in my head.

Whether you’re a logic-person or a visual-person or an emotional-person, there are sets of metaphors for what we’re doing as musicians that will enable you to connect with playing by ear, or by dots, or improvising, as a non-alien concept within your existing frame of reference. From there, we can build new metaphors, new sets of labels, new context etc.

Do bassists have a particular relationship with playing by ear? Is it more or less important for them than, say, a guitar or piano player?

The bit that’s MUCH harder for bassists is that, if you change the root, you change the music.

If a guitarist plays, for example, an Emin chord instead of a C, so long as the bassist is still playing C, everyone’s going to hear CMajor7. As soon as we change, everything else does too!

So it’s not about the instrument, but about the role of “playing the lowest note, and as such defining the harmony” – If the pianist is playing the roots, and we’re improvising melodically, then the same set of ear-skills apply as for anyone else playing melody.

But, given that most of the time in bands, the bassist is the one playing the lowest note, our ear skills need to be sharper and our response time quicker to make sure that we’re both in time and playing the right note from the range of possible notes in the key we’re in!

A lot of children start learning music with the violin or piano, seemingly by default. How does bass guitar stand up as an alternative first instrument? Is it a good choice of instrument for a new music student who wants to focus on aural skills and playing by ear?

Steve Lawson (Photo: rohsstreetcafe@Flickr)Why we ever started kids out on violin is beyond me – it’s an almost impossibly difficult instrument to play well. I’ve heard ‘pros’ whose intonation made my eyeballs hurt. What chance have kids with no other musical background got of not making a horrible noise? You need a your perseverance to outstrip your own desire to stop making a bad noise to get past those first few years of horrible-noise-making to graduate to where you can play well…

I applaud anyone who does – because played well, violin is a glorious instrument. But it’s no wonder that something like 90% of kids who play an instrument at school give up before they leave high school! 

Bass is a GREAT first instrument, largely because it’s so easy to pick up. The first few things you learn to do on a bass are really simple, and you can be playing along with U2 records within an hour of first picking up a bass…

It is, however, much harder to master, as there’s no set repertoire in the way there is for most other instruments – if you go anywhere other than deeper into the ‘bass player’s role’ within ‘band music’, you’re pretty much on your own.

It’s not that there aren’t a lot of other people who’ve done it, it’s just that none of the material is canonical, so you really need to make some decisions about what influences you’re going to take on board. As such, ear playing becomes really important, because so little of the massive range of possible influence is actually scored at all. You just need to buy records, go to gigs, get on YouTube and start learning by ear. 

Do you think playing by ear is neglected in traditional instrument teaching? Is it something which should be taught as a separate skill, or integrated into instrument learning?

It seems to be to be utterly integral to our relationship with music.

The huge problem with the way that many many traditional music learning paths go is that they encourage students to be ‘right’, to differentiate between getting it ‘right’ and getting it ‘wrong’. Which leaves the musician wholly out of step with a contemporary music audience, because unless you’re playing in a detail-oriented tribute band, no one cares about ‘right’. They only care about ‘good’ – the aesthetic judgement, in the moment, is a far more important one than whether or not you got the phrasing the same as someone else playing the same piece of music. The bits that actually comprise ‘the composition’ in most pop songs are SO simple in comparison to the classical repertoire, that focusing on ‘rightness’, based on the written page, leads to an utter banality of experience, and a total disconnect with your audience.

Ear training reconnects you with the fundamental unit of music – not ‘notes’, but ‘sound’. Listening has to be the pre-eminent focus of any musician, but many teaching paths seem to leave this moment of ‘enlightenment’ to some kind of post-graduate monastic discovery, rather than putting it right there in the first lesson where it belongs… 

Do you teach your bass students to play by ear? If so, do you manage to combine it with traditional sheet music teaching and the world of grade exams?

I refuse to teach the rock/pop grades. For the most part, it isn’t music that I or the student would ever want to listen to, and attempts to impose on the learning process a false measurability.

The idea that some examiner is going to make a judgement about the ‘rightness’ of a student’s playing based on a fairly opaque (and deeply questionable) set of marking criteria strikes me as anti-art. It works fine if you’re learning music that is canonical, but pop music is both progressive music (constantly changing and developing, at the whim of whoever chooses to play it) and a folk form (it’s music by people, for people, not music by and/or for academics and academic approval).

Ear training reconnects you with the fundamental unit of music – not ‘notes’, but ‘sound’.

So I tend to greatly emphasise the skills that will enable a student to do what it is they want to do and need to do in order to play the music they love. The range of ‘music they love’ expands within the course of the learning, but everything is learned in context, because there’s so much available context that makes learning an altogether more compelling experience.

I teach students to read music as a matter of course, but as a skill that’s not that hard to do and one that’ll help them understand music, rather than as some kind of benchmark of how good they are as musicians.

I know some incredible musicians who can’t read at all, and some terrible ones who read very well… I don’t know many great musicians with a bad ear… 

Listen to some of Steve's solo bass music

If aural skills and the ability to play by ear is the way forwards for good musicianship – does a student still need a teacher? Can a bass student learn as much in their room with YouTube tutorials as with one-on-one professional lessons?

A teacher’s role is to inspire, and to remove obstacles, to read the student’s path from what they say, what they ask, what their own investigation seems to be pointing towards.

I provide context, point to specific material, explain things in a language the student understands but might not know where to look to find that particular explanation.

It’s quite possible to be auto-didactic now and learn independent of any teacher, but a good teacher ought to vastly accelerate the process of learning, teach in sympathy with all those other resources and inspire the student to a deeper pursuit of their own voice.

So many fascinating insights there from a tremendous musician and master educator. Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to share his perspective with us. If you haven’t come away from this interview with a renewed passion for playing by ear… read it again!

Any questions, or your own opinion to share? Drop us a line below.

We’ll leave you with some beautiful bass tunes from Steve himself (available for purchase at very reasonable prices indeed, from Bandcamp):

11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything – Remastered by Steve Lawson

Thanks to garethjmsaunders and rohsstreetcafe on Flickr for their great photos of Steve used above. This interview published under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licence.