The instrument that I intend to learn is the bass. The bass is what gets me excited to study theory in the first place. I've done a bit of reading on theory and I find it's fun to practice it on the bass.

However, I'm also kind of worried that I might miss out on something since the bass is mostly a monophonic instrument and I'm going to need to learn chords after all. Now I understand I can simply play the intervals on the bass one note at a time(arpeggio?)and still get an idea of what the chord sounds like. But the piano/keyboard allows you to pull those big extended and suspended chords on the fly and I find it's quite frightening. I also have tried to visualize theory on the piano and admire how it simplify theory so I get why it's the standard instrument for music.

Now I have nothing against the piano. I like it a lot as well. It's just that the instrument that have always seduced me is the bass and good keyboards don't come cheap so I gotta pick one or the other.

Hence I'm in a bit of dilemma at the moment. So what do you guys think? Am I really just going to make it harder for myself for attempting to study theory without a piano or will I be doing just fine except I'm gonna have to put more efforts in everything I will be doing?

Thanks in advance.

  • 4
    The electric bass is not strictly monophonic, you can play chords, though of course piano is much more suitable for this.
    – Edward
    Nov 5, 2020 at 3:57
  • 1
    I know we’ve answered a similar question recently. (Duplication?) Your problem is not one of alternatives. It makes lot of sense to practice both instruments. The bass (your favorite one) and the piano additional. Nov 5, 2020 at 6:21
  • watch some Adam Neely youtube videos, preferably all of them, best music youtube, basist and absolutely nuts for theory.
    – Kuhlambo
    Nov 5, 2020 at 20:36
  • People who play actual monophonic instruments (woodwind, brass) don't seem to have any trouble understanding harmony.
    – OrangeDog
    Nov 6, 2020 at 13:25
  • Right, but most "serious" woodwind/brass/whatever players also have some rudimentary keyboard skills. For that purpose a very cheap keyboard would probably be fine. May 21, 2021 at 21:52

5 Answers 5


You've expressed an accurate sense of why there is a theory advantage with the piano, but since you also very clearly are drawn to the bass, a couple of comments:

  1. Particularly if you play jazz or popular music, you will by necessity learn a huge amount about chords and scales and how they relate, because this is the essence of bass's harmonic role in a band. If anything, bass probably has an advantage over many other monophonic instruments, because its role is so fundamental (pun intended) to the harmony.

  2. For the purpose of learning theory, you don't need to play keyboard beyond a few basics, like forming a chord or playing a scale (but even the one-finger approach will be okay). If you can, just pick up a cheap keyboard so you can play and see chords and scales. The sound, the touch, even the size don't really matter. For your purposes it will just be a visualization/tactile sensation tool.

  • 2
    I wanted to write my own answer, but your point 1. summarizes it well enough. Especially in the context of modern music, the bass is often a vital component of the harmony. It doesn't just add to the "rhythm guitar" chord our "outline" the progression, it definitely introduces a new quality there. So understanding the relations with other instruments is extremely important. Just looking at a few Polyphia songs would give you an idea how much that synergy can be utilized - e.g. in this nice analysis video. Nov 5, 2020 at 14:08
  • 1
    An example of 1., a very common track structure in jazz is "theme, (chorus, theme), solos, theme". And the bass sheet music will have notes for the theme part, and "chords and rhythm" for the solos. Your job as the bass player is to play notes in the chord, or notes that complement the chord, throughout, so that the solo can shine on top of it. Doesn't have to be the same ones every time, and you can work with the soloist to make your ground bass "his style", and then "her style" for the next one. And, of course, sometimes the band leader points to you!
    – Mycroft
    Nov 5, 2020 at 16:58
  • Anyone care to explain the pun in "fundamental"? In my defense, non-native-speaker.
    – MaxD
    Nov 5, 2020 at 19:55
  • 1
    @MaxD "Fundamental bass" is an early term for the idea of a chord root.
    – Aaron
    Nov 5, 2020 at 20:12

There is nothing theory-related that you cannot learn on the bass. Also the bass is really far away from being a monophonic instrument!

However, like you have noticed already, piano makes visualizing things easier SOME TIMES (I find it MUCH easier to visualize diminished chords on a guitar instrument than on the piano for example, either on bass or guitar; I find it much easier to count the semitones on the fretboard rather than on the keyboard as another example)

My suggestion is: HAVE FUN. If you enjoy music, playing around with another instrument should only add to the fun, so experiment as much as possible. Finally, I would recommend to always have some sort of keyboard around so that you can use it to visualize/understand things that you struggle on the bass.


There's a lot more to music theory than chords, which can (and are) played on bass. And extended chords, available easily on piano, won't be part of your curriculum for quite a while yet. And by that time, you'll be sufficiently knowledgable to find those extra notes, even if in arpeggio style, which won't hurt.

The bigger problem of bass versus piano is that on piano there is only ever one place to play one particular note. On bass (4 string) there are often three or four different strings/frets for an individual note, which can be confusing, especially for a beginner playing the instrument, let alone trying to understand theory! Sometimes, you may find it simpler to just use one string to find chord notes, for instance.

As has been said many times, a piano, or cheap keyboard (car boot sale, a tenner), would be a great help. That's why, in music school, whatever instrument one studies, the piano/keyboard is used alongside. It will also give you an insight into the treble clef - unknown territory for most bass players...


Theory studies (even advanced harmony, post tonal music and counterpoint) are topics apart from instruments or instrumental proficiency. You may not play any instrument at all, and still excels in music theory. But you'll need to take this serious as you'd take an instrument.

Of course keyboards will help visualizing harmony and sets, but it's not mandatory playing piano to learn well this. But you will need to improve your aural skills and solfege a lot; hear perfectly inside your head what's written it's the goal and ultimate perception level. If you study theory in a clever way - not the way it is usually systematized - you may achieve this faster. Partimento and solfege exercises may help a lot at this.

A example of how good one can be without any instrument: Paris Conservatory had annual contests on solfege, harmony and counterpoint. Participants of counterpoint contest were locked for 16 hours in a room only with sheet paper and a pen and must compose a 4-part fugue with more than a hundred bars, using a given subject (the same for all competitors) and his/her aural skills only - without access to anything else, including instruments.

If people 100-150 years ago could nail perfectly this, we can also.


Am I really just going to make it harder for myself for attempting to study theory without a piano or will I be doing just fine except I'm gonna have to put more efforts in everything I will be doing?

Music theory is about the relationship between the notes, not how they're laid out.

For instance, a Major Third, Minor Third, Perfect Fourth, etc. are all defined by the number of semi-tones between them, not where they fall on the instrument. Scales are the same way. Knowing what they are and how they apply to your instrument specifically--whatever it is--will be more important than what that instrument actually is.

The only thing I could see being easier on a Piano is the fact that E and F are right next to each other (as well as C and B)--as opposed to having another note between them like F and G, for instance. On the Piano, because of the way the keys are laid out, it has a nice visual reminder of this. On the other hand, on the Bass it's a little harder. But that's really the only problem I could see a beginner running into.

The one thing I will tell you is that it will be harder to learn an instrument that you aren't motivated to play. Being inspired will help you learn, and even make you excited to learn. There's no use learning an instrument you don't want to play just because you think you'll get some theoretical benefit out of it. At the end of the day, a good teacher and/or a good curriculum can teach you all the theory you need to play the instrument properly. And that goes for both Bass and Piano, or really any instrument.

So, if you like the Bass better than Piano, then go for the Bass. You seem to be really inspired to play Bass, so do that.

And, I know you think you can only choose one. But think of it this way: you only have to choose one right now. There is nothing stopping you from coming back in a year, or five years, or even ten years, and picking up another instrument (such as the Piano). I myself have learned more than one instrument, and know several other people who have done so as well.

And, in the mean time, you can take time and learn and practice the instrument you chose and perfect it. That way, when you finally get a future opportunity to get another instrument, you have already mastered the first one.

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