Recently I played bass for a musical. It was one of those lessons in how valuable being able to read a bass score is. I know many bassists who play by ear very well, it’s a great skill to have. However, when there are 20 songs to learn over two rehearsals, being able to read the bass lines off of the page is definitely a win.
Over the years I have heard many arguments about using Tab versus Score for notation. Tab can be very ‘accessible’ for those new to reading music or less familiar with the fret board, since it shows the reader exactly what to do. However, it is hard to read at the same speed as a score, and doesn’t carry the same level of detail in terms of timing and expression. There is a reasonably large investment required to learn to be able to read a score, but the bass clef isn’t too much of a monster once you have your head around it.
Of course, you don’t have to learn to read music to be a bassist, but the return on that learning investment is access to a large library of bass lines, and it also opens up new opportunities for playing.
You may find this introduction to reading common notation helpful, and there is another basic introduction here. Remember, you only really need to read the bass clef, although it is sometimes helpful if you can make sense of the rest of a score too. You can test your note recognition skills here, for fun! It is a question of drilling until you have memorised which notes are on which line. Even just that skill, and an understanding of sharps and flats, can get you through many situations.
If you want to write out bass scores for yourself, then German publishing house “Lugert-Verlag” has recently made available a free version of the Forte notation programme. Forte has been in use in educational establishments for many years. Although the freeware version is limited in functionality, it is more than adequate for most bassists purposes. If you want to do full on orchestral work, then you’ll need to upgrade to the full version.
What is your experience with reading music? Too hard? Worthwhile? Not worth it?