How to Read Chunks and Intervals in Music to Play the Bass Guitar - dummies

How to Read Chunks and Intervals in Music to Play the Bass Guitar

By Patrick Pfeiffer

As you read this sentence, notice that you’re not reading letter by letter; you’re reading words. When playing the bass guitar, you read music the same way. Music notation is recognizable in chunks of notes (or musical words).

Certain chunks tend to be repeated again and again, and you can train your eyes to recognize these patterns. When you get used to seeing and hearing music in chunks, you can get a good idea of what the music on the page sounds (and feels) like merely by scanning the page.

Rhythmic chunks

Reading music in chunks makes playing much easier. The chunks may be a group of four sixteenth notes or perhaps two eighth notes. Become familiar with the way these notes look when grouped together for faster recognition, and practice playing and singing them to the click of your metronome.


Check this out to hear beats as chunks of notes. Memorize what each of the “chunks” of notes looks and sounds like.

You can substitute any of the notes with a rest of equal value and still have the same rhythmic chunk; the only difference is that now you have a “silent” note (the rest) in place of the note. The rhythmic value of the beat is still the same.

This is what the beats look like if you substitute a rest for any of the notes. These are still the same rhythmic combinations but with rests inserted. The top line shows the original beat with all the notes played. The bottom line shows the same rhythmic figure with a rest replacing one note at a time.


Check this out to hear how the rests take the space of a note.

Interval chunks

You can read the notes of intervals in groups, much like you can read chunks of rhythm. Being able to recognize the intervals in chunks visually helps you read more fluidly. You can see the shapes of chunks rather than having to analyze each individual pitch. The relationship of the notes to each other gives you a hint at which interval you’re facing.

For example, when your first note is on a line of the musical staff and the next note is in the space directly above that line, you have an interval of a second (2nd). You can see the two notes as a chunk. If your first note is on a line and your next note is on the line directly above, it’s a third (3rd).

You won’t know right away whether it’s a major or a minor interval, but you’re already in the ballpark. With a bit of practice, you can see the intervals in an instant, much like recognizing words, and you can position your hand to be ready to play them.

The same holds true if your first note is in a space. Each line and each space represent a step and thus an interval. At first, you need to count from space to line to space and so on to recognize the interval. Eventually, your eyes get used to the distance between the notes, and you can see the intervals as chunks in an instant.

Note that there’s no bass clef, or clef of any kind. This is a conceptual approach. All you need are the lines and spaces to see how the notes form the intervals.

When you want to know what interval two notes form, just count the lines and spaces between them, starting with the line or space of the first note. For example, if the first note is on the lowest line of the staff and the next note is two lines and three spaces in the space above it, the interval is a sixth (6th).

Note the line, space, line, space, line, space — six steps in all. It forms a picture that you can become familiar with.


What comes up must come down

A perfect example of the visual impact of music notation is a collection of all 12 major scales. Each scale is played with the exact same fingering, only moving that same hand position on the fingerboard to accommodate the new root.

All the major scales move from line to space or from space to line, step by step. The sharps and flats adjust the intervals into the proper half and whole steps to create each major scale. When you see music notation like this, you can easily see that each chunk is a scale, and you can set up your hand accordingly.


No discussion on reading music would be complete without taking a look at the chromatic scale. You can see the notation of every note in the practical range of the bass guitar. Follow along as you play each note and see how the notes go up when the music goes up and the notes go down as the music goes down.


The intricacies of reading music can fill an entire book, but this bit gets you started on the right track.