by Adam Nitti

Hello again, fellow holders-of-the-bottom! Let's face it. If you want to be a complete musician, you need to be able to read music. I know it's a hassle sometimes, but we need to be familiar with the language of music if we wish to speak it. Those of us who cannot read are forced to be excluded from certain gigs we might otherwise really enjoy. How many of you sweat when the dude on the other end of the phone finishes giving you the gig details and then interjects, "Uh, you can read, right???" What I have found is that many of us already know the notes on the staff, but we need a little bit of a jump start to get us sight reading at a reasonable rate of speed. Here is a neat concept I utilize often which can help you when you are in those "on-the-spot" sight-reading situations. However, before I move on, let me stress one major point:


Sounds obvious, right? Well, it's important to understand that your sight reading just doesn't improve overnight. It's a very progressive process, and that's why you must try to challenge yourself constantly in order to make the task easier. If I don't read for a long time, I get rusty. Many of you have also discovered this for yourselves, and it's no fun knowing you are out of shape!

Okay. With all that out of the way, let me now present you with a little shortcut that might give you the confidence to try to tackle that chart you've been afraid of for so long... It focuses on sight reading using your familiarity with INTERVALLIC SHAPES.

The conventional way to read music works like this:

1. You see a note on the staff

2. You associate that note with a pitch and duration

3. You identify the location of that pitch on the instrument

4. You play the note for the length of its duration

5. You move on to the next note and start over at #1, above

Although not a very scientific explanation, the steps I have mentioned pretty much exemplify the challenge of sight-reading. The mastery of steps 1 through 5 will make you a great reader. However, in my opinion the concept of identifying pitches with a specific location on the instrument is one of the most challenging, when faced with it in real time (i.e., in a performance situation). Here is where a knowledge of intervallic shapes can give you a great advantage.

Let's first identify some basic intervallic shapes on a staff that you should be familiar with:

Each interval's name is based on the distance in scale degrees from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch. For example:

2nd: C(1) D(2)

3rd: C(1) D(2) E(3)

4th: C(1) D(2) E(3) F(4)

5th: C(1)D(2) E(3) F(4) G(5)


These intervallic distances correspond directly to intervallic shapes on your bass. Here are some intervallic distances based on the major scale: (In the following figures, the lowest line is the lowest pitched string on your bass.)

Using intervallic shapes, you can play the correct pitches by instead identifying them as a series of intervals. The music is interpreted in terms of distance within a scale pattern. Using this method, you take the following steps to set yourself up for accelerated reading:

1. Identify the key signature for the piece of music

2. Choose a scale pattern within that key that includes all of the notes in the selection

3. Read the piece intervallically based on the notes included in your hand position (If you encounter accidentals, simply modify the interval by raising or lowering the pitch specified by the accidental)

Okay! Now let's try to demonstrate the entire process, from start to finish. Here's a musical example that we'll use to tie all of this stuff together:

Step 1: Identify the key signature In this case we have three sharps, so the key center is A major or F# minor.

Step 2: Choose a scale pattern that includes all notes in the selection To do this, we need to first identify the lowest and highest notes in the selection to figure out the total range. In this one, the lowest note played is an F# 2 octaves below middle C, which is the 2nd fret E string (or 7th fret on a low B string). The highest note is an F# an octave higher (the pitch equivalent of 4th fret D string, 9th fret E string, etc.)

Since A major/F# minor is the key center, it would be best to choose from any of the A major-based modes (A Ionian, B Dorian, C# Phrygian, D Lydian, E Mixolydian, F# Aeolian, or G# Locrian). Any one that includes all of the notes in the selection would be sufficient. Let's use F# Aeolian for our example. Our fingering for our hand position would look like this, with the lowest note in the pattern lined up with the lowest F# in the piece (2nd fret E string, etc.):

Fortunately, there are no accidentals, so we can stay completely within our chosen scale pattern when playing the selection.

Step 3: Read the piece intervallically

Now you will play the pitches as a series of intervals, from left to right. Here's the information as it corresponds directly to the notated music:

Described verbally, the intervallic reading of the first eight notes would go like this:










 up a 3rd  up a 3rd  down a 3rd  down a 2nd  up a 3rd  up 2nd  down a 2nd










Note: For you theory buffs, keep in mind that these intervals are generically named, and therefore NOT ASSUMED to be major or perfect intervals. They are played with respect to the Aeolian mode, and that is why I haven't specified their qualities. This allows the method to be compatible with all scales.

The rest of the music would be completed like this:

Keep in mind this method is much more difficult to use if you are dealing with large numbers of accidentals, chords, or very large intervallic jumps within the music. I have found that this concept seems to work great with things like walking bass lines or other linear patterns. Once again, this is a method designed to assist you in your sight reading; do not use this method to completely replace conventional methods!

Have fun with it! Until next time...

Adam Nitti is currently the head bass instructor at the Atlanta Institute of Music, and is currently finishing work on his 2nd CD. Read the rest of his extensive bio at

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