Music Theory; Heart vs Head

Music Theory; Heart or Head?

I've suggested in a previous 
post that it may be beneficial 
to some bass players to 
learn music theory and also to 
learn to read music.

This suggestion has upset some 
people in the bass community. One person 
in particular, sent me a private message, 
denouncing the whole idea with a rant 
almost as long as this article.

It seemed the concept of learning music theory 
was irksome enough to shake him to his very core. 
How dare I even put this forward as an option!

After giving his blow by blow "evidence" of bass 
players that didn't know a lick of theory but 
were amazing players (many exist, of course 
but most of the musicians that he named, he 
was wrong about, by the way. More on that below), 
he gave it to me with both barrels;

“Music comes from the gut, not from theory”


Why does it have to be so binary? Either heart 
or head, as if they are unconnected? 

Music theory ,like any other theory (gravity,
evolution, mathematics) is 
simply a way of describing what naturally occurs. 

I’ll say it again:

The purpose of theory is to explain nature.

No one ever says “I need to get to Los Angeles 
from New York… I know, I’ll "vibe" it … step out 
of my house, start moving my legs and 
we’ll see what happens…”

They’d take a look at a map or (nowadays) look 
online for the information to get them to their 
destination in the shortest, cheapest and most 
efficient way. In other words, you could say 
that music theory is the “map” that saves 
you time and energy.

Of course, you can work anything out by yourself 
(and I did nothing but that for 26 of my 
36 years as a musician).

Nothing wrong with working it out on your own, 
especially if it’s important to your identity 
to say that you are totally self taught  
(needing that for your identity isn’t 
necessarily bad either) but having the 
correct music theory knowledge from a good 
teacher will help speed the process 
up for almost everyone.

Everyone has talent (some more than others) but 
none of us are in control of our talent level. 

You get what you're given.

What you can control, however, is 
how hard you’re prepared to work on your craft 
reading music, etc).

If you do decide you’re going to work on that 
craft, you then have two choices;

1) Trial and error; Just “vibes, feel and playing from the heart”.

Picking things up as you go, hoping they are the appropriate 
things you need to progress to the next level on your 
instrument and music in general. Or;

2) Study music theory; (With or without a teacher)

My good friend and phenomenal bass player, Hadrien Feraud 
is totally self taught. 

He doesn’t read music (he certainly didn't when he recorded 
with John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and others) but he does 
know music theory and harmony inside and out.

Hadrien transcribed a lot of music from very early on 
in his development (in this instance, not by writing out 
the notes but by learning the phrases by ear, on bass 
but also piano, and analysing them as related to the 
chords played underneath).

Because of this, he can hear and name ANY chord 
and related intervals and thus can create great 
lines and improvise over very complex chord 
changes with ease. 

Of course, Hadrien is talented, curious and had enough 
focus to study chordal harmony. Not everyone has the 
hunger and focus to do this on their own but he 
shows it's possible.

Hadrien Feraud has great feel and “Heart”, of 
course but all the feel in the world wouldn’t 
help him at all if he didn’t know what to play 
on a Lydian b7 chord or a tritone sub.

My own personal journey into music theory

I had 26 straight years of playing as a professional 
bass player in the jazz rock and fusion world, being 
fortunate enough to play with many of the innovators 
in those fields. 

I had no formal training to embark on that journey so 
I totally relate to the thought that you don’t “need” 
theory because I somehow had enough natural talent to 
play with everyone from John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, 
Django Bates, Leni and Mike Stern, Trilok Gurtu and 
others long before I had the first clue about 
music theory. 

None of them ever complained about my lack of theory 
knowledge or inability to read music because I was 
able to hear and play their music as they wanted it. 

That said, I really felt that I could improve so much 
more as an all round musician if I could read music 
and understand music theory. 

(For full disclosure, many years into my pro career, 
after I'd played with many of the above named artists, 
I had a few lessons with the great bass player and 
educator, Joe Hubbard but I got busy with work and 
Joe stopped teaching and playing not long after so 
I didn't get to deal with reading music at that time). 

I embarked on the theory and music reading journey 
properly in September 2009 by taking on a long term 
theatre show tour (Thriller Live) and now, nearly 
ten years later, I’m glad I did. There are many 
musical situations I couldn’t even be considered 
for before because the fundamental requirement 
is to be able to read music confidently. 

As I improve in that skill, I’ve been rewarded with 
many opportunities that were simply not available to 
me before, including playing various West End shows 
and recording incidental music for TV shows (for the 
TV music, I wouldn’t have any of the charts in advance, 
just had to come in and sight read them on the day, 
often with a single take on each piece of music).

No amount of “feel” will get you through that scenario!

So, essentially, music theory and reading music notation 
are time saving devices.

If you’re in no rush and don't mind taking 10-20 years 
learning a skill that you could learn with a teacher in 
a few weeks or months,then go ahead but the statement 
that “music comes from the gut and not from theory” is, 
I believe, a false dichotomy and a very weak argument, 
usually employed by people who want a way to justify 
not doing the necessary work.

Similarly, this next question is asked by many a bass player;

Will learning theory and reading music affect my feel?

To answer this, I should point out that James Jamerson, 
Carol Kaye, Marcus Miller, Sharay Reed, Rob Trujillo, 
Esperanza Spalding, Flea,Freddie Washington, 
Tracey Wormworth, Chuck Rainey, Rhonda Smith, 
Verdine White, Jimmy Johnson, Kim Clarke, Nathan East, 
Jerry Jemmott, Wilton Felder and others all know 
music theory and read music notation. 

None of them seem to be displaying any problems with 
their feel, do they?

What do you think? Is it a case of "Heart vs Head" or is it, 
as I suggest, a little more nuanced than that? 

I'd like to know your views, for or against learning 
music theory and reading music? 

Thanks in advance for leaving your comments below. 

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Michael is a freelance Bass Guitar player, who studied at the much lauded

Bedroom School Of Music.
(just means he's self-taught, don't panic!)

He began his professional music career in 1983, playing Bass Guitar with his brother, drummer Mark Mondesir
(John McLaughlin, Jethro Tull,
Glenn Hughes),
forming a trio with guitarist

Hawi Gondwe
(Amy Winehouse/
George Michael).

Since then he has performed with
artists as diverse as;
Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Ginger Baker, Eddie Harris, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Oumou Sangare, Usher, Whitney Houston, Imogen Heap, Sir George Martin, State of Bengal, Hermeto Pascoal, David Garibaldi, Jan Hammer, Ty, Zoe Rahman, Jim Mullen, Ronnie Wood, John Serry, Andy Summers, Django Bates, Gary Husband, Chante Moore, Lulu, Nitin Sawhney, Lenny White, Chad Smith, Courtney Pine, Jocelyn Brown, Jason Rebello, Brice Wassy, Neneh Cherry, Nikki Yeoh, Bernard Purdie, Iain Ballamy, Bill Bruford, Julian Joseph, Leni Stern, Mory Kante, Keith More, Trilok Gurtu, Aster Aweke, S-Club 7, Talvin Singh and Pee Wee Ellis.

Michael entered the Pop, R&B, Funk and Dance music world, composing tracks on albums by funk trombone legend Fred Wesley and singer/songwriter, Lewis Taylor.

In September 2009, Michael joined the
Thriller Live world tour.
He is currently part of the visiting faculty of various education establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Rhythmic Conservatory of Copenhagen and British Academy of New Music as well as teaching privately at home
(schedule permitting).

Michael Mondesir uses:
Yamaha Basses, Costalab Pedals and Elixir Strings.