A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Coursera – FoMT Week 1 initial impressions

FoMT_logoThere’s a directive that I see mentioned over and over on the Talkbass forums, and a bunch of other places that discuss playing bass: “Keep it simple. Serve the song.” I don’t always agree with the first part, as I think different musical styles and situations call for different approaches on an instrument, and because people’s tastes simply vary, both as listeners and as performers. I do think that people other than bass players should think about that advice, though.

Keep it simple. Serve the song. This has practical use outside of bass. One area is in education. Tantalizing an audience with arcane knowledge is probably an effective way to get them interested in pursuing a topic that already appeals to them, but for a novice student, it can add confusion and feelings of inadequacy. There’s this image that gets painted into people’s heads a lot which describes a rock-star guitarist, soloing down pathways that only his or her fingers could possibly navigate, enthralling an audience with 6-stringed fireworks and leading the band into infamy.

Behind the showboating guitarist is a bassist, locked in with a drummer, holding down the groove – as is our biological imperative. The audience pays attention to the person up front, bolding going where no ego has gone before. The rest of the band becomes an afterthought. They’re only there to support the lead, of course. However – that role is key. Without the proper support, a great deal of the rest of what we hear loses context and falls apart. Its like not having a medic or supply line when you’re in combat. An army marches on its belly, as the saying goes.

Anyway, what’s the point of my morning ramble? Well, while I was waking up after the sun rose, marveling at the experience of not having to work for two days in a row, I got to thinking. I watched all of the videos from the 1st lesson of that Fundamentals of Music Theory class from Coursera & University of Edinburgh. I also read an interesting comment from Shelby Stronger of Grrl + Guitar on my previous post about the class, last night. She’s not entirely entranced by the material, so far – and neither am I.

I enjoy learning about theory, but I don’t think everyone – even those in higher education – are necessarily capable of divulging this information to a novice class. I think that, as a group of PhD’s, they’ve somehow lost the beginner’s perspective. They’ve been in academia for a long time and its possible that they also have a venue in which to solo, like that guitarist above. When they speak, half of the time, they speak in tongues, and its not their fault. Its the result of living and breathing in an academic setting and dedicating serious thought to higher levels of music theory, and possibly even with specific pedagogies. I’m pretty sure that why those two books, Tonal Harmony and The AB Guide to Music Theory, are recommended to students taking the course.

The instructors are all bright individuals, with impressive credentials and experience applying all that they know in a variety of musical settings, but I think that in an effort to be somewhat comprehensive, they forget something: baby steps. Some people might get annoyed at hearing information repeated, but from teaching adults about specialized clinical software and technology, I’ve come to appreciate that when dealing with a mass audience, you need to establish a baseline. Simplicity and repetition are key to that.

People get by in conversation with snippets of concepts. What I know about technology is going to be different from what a true developer, like anyone on our programming team, holds as truth or even as useful information. We share enough basic knowledge to communicate concepts though, and ultimately, I think that’s a key function of music theory – it lets us analyze and understand music so that we can communicate about it in an established, somewhat scientific manner, using a common tongue.

So, baby steps. The videos in this first lesson go through basics of understanding musical notes (not note values, like how long to hold a note, just position, like a C is here and a D is there), concepts like the octave and its varying definitions – thank you homonyms, a little bit about the construction of the major scale, chords and some other stuff, like diving into the modes.

Its too much to cram into 48 mins. Its too much for beginners to wrap their heads around. So far, this first lesson has been the opposite of the previous Developing Your Musicianship class that I took. The previous class was scant on information. It felt like it introduced topics, but didn’t really explore them in a meaningful manner. This one seems like it should be accompanied by a lot of reading or additional videos.

I’ll write about it more, as I add to the internet’s already endless reserve of text, and hopefully I’ll be able to help other beginners understand some concepts by sharing additional resources that can work in tandem with what’s presented in the course. As a disclaimer – some of it might be illustrated via bass. Hopefully, it’ll look better than I do though.


One response

  1. Pingback: Coursera – Fundamentals of Music Theory Week 1 | Ugly Bass Face

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