Question for experienced musicians...

I’ve started to practice playing bass guitar again after a hiatus of about twelve years and here’s something I’ve always wondered: do experienced musicians ever get to the point where they can think of a melody or the tone of a note and immediately play or find it on an instrument without trial and error? And if so, does this come with tons of practice or is it something you have to be born with? I’ll have a bass line going through my head it’s really tough for me to get it out and play it on my bass. I’m curious if this is something I’ll eventually get better at or is a lost cause.

I’m not that experienced/good, but I am comfortable around a keyboard, and I can take melody or hooks from my head to the keys pretty easily. Occasionally my brain will serve up some offbeat minor key that takes a bit of trial and error to sort out (like I said, not actually really experienced) but usually I just sit there and it goes from brain to fingers pretty well. I find getting harmonies down to be much harder -I start playing what it ‘should be’ instead of what I remembered or thought of.

What kills me is a friend of mine who can just take a musical phrase and casually write it out in musical notation, just like I would jot down an english sentence - he’s a musician on six instruments I’m aware of (piano/keyboard, drums, bass, guitar, flute, sax) a song-writer, and has perfect pitch. I try not to do musical things around him for fear I’ll make him wince too much.

Totally didn’t actually answer - I feel like it’s something that you’re either naturally attuned to or not, but that like anything, if you practice, you should be able to do it competently, even if it’s never totally fluid for you.

Good luck!

The skill you’re trying to develop is one of “relative pitch.” This can absolutely be learned with practice and there are classes that help you hone these aural skills. I’m sure there’s probably classes online or programs that do so. And, related to this, as you play, you learn little licks and riffs, and other sorts of common patterns and cliches, and, after awhile, the way they sound kind of become engrained in you via muscle memory and aural memory, so you develop quick mental “access” to it. The more kinds of music you play, the more you listen, the more you practice, the more it becomes natural. Now, some people are absolute magicians when it comes to this. There is definitely different levels of talent and how much work you have to put into it to become good, but basic relative pitch competence should be attainable, unless you are actually tone deaf (and there seems to be disagreement over how “real” tone deafness is and how correctable it is.) So look up relative pitch and ear training courses to get an idea of what’s out there that could help you with this.

Now, there is another related skill called absolute, or “perfect,” pitch. That is the ability to name a note without a reference point upon first hearing it. That is, you can hear the whistle of a bird, and know it’s a C sharp, or, without looking at the piano, have someone hit a note and instantly be able to tell that is a G natural. Or if somebody tells you “sing an E flat,” you can produce the pitch readily. That sort of thing. That appears to be a skill that is largely innate. Or if it’s not innate, it is not easily or reliably teachable. Some instrumentalists develop a pseudo-perfect pitch memory through intense training and some vocalists can mimic it with knowing the tension in their vocal cords when singing certain notes. But this is not necessary to learn the skill you’re wanting to develop. The pitch itself doesn’t really matter, it’s the relationship between the pitches that is what you’re figuring out mostly when plucking out a bass line.

I took a music theory class with a girl who sort of had perfect pitch. Or anti-perfect pitch. Play a note on the piano, Bb and ask her to sing it and she’d sing Bb. Play an F on the piano and ask her to sing it, and she’d sing a Bb. Any note, she’d sing a Bb.

Some people are born with it and I think others are more challenged that way, but you’ll eventually get better if you work at it. Based on the information you’ve provided, I think your best bet would be to spend some time trying to work out melodies that are already in your head. Beyond that, two things that will probably help a lot are (1) being able to sing or hum the melody you’re trying to work out and (2) having a basic understanding of diatonic scales and chord tones and how they relate to a given key.

Perfect pitch is probably not something you’ll ever get, but you can make it where you are more likely to get the pitch right than wrong. For me, it requires not thinking about it at all–which almost never happens when I’m actually trying to play along with someone.

It’s called ear training. You don’t need perfect pitch to be able to play on an instrument what you have in your head. You just need practice.

Like the way you get to Carnegie Hall.

I noodle around on guitar (not that good, I would call myself a permanent intermediate) and I do find that when I’m working out the chords for a song sometimes my hand will go the correct next chord without any conscious effort.
Some tutors recommend an exercise in which you try to pick out a familiar melody without simply ‘fishing’ for notes (but not necessarily in the original key), and it is something that you get better at.

Yeah, that’s kind of it. When I was young, I could pick out any tune I had in my head…eventually. If it was some else’s song that was in my head, a few minutes later with the record would get me in the right key.

After 30-odd years of playing, I’ve gotten to the point where I can get the hang of most songs by the first chorus when I’m playing along with the record*. To the point where people say “wow, you picked that up quick!” when I’m playing along with a song I’ve never heard before. In the time between youth and now, I had learned a bit about music theory and how most folks structure standard styles of songs. There are certain patterns that are followed in a lot of pop music, and when you can hear them coming, it becomes kind of easy. Still, when people get really adventurous tonally or leave western scales behind, I can’t keep up in real time. That’s the domain of a real jazz player, which I aint.

In regard to sounds I hear in my head before I play them, sometimes I just know how that lays out on the fingerboard before I start. Other times, I just can’t find the damn thing. I think that it’s related to the same problems when I’m playing along with something I don’t know: if what I hear in my head is a strange tonality, it’s going to be a few minutes before I work it out.

*Or the T.V., my wife just rolls her eyes when she sees me pick up the guitar while watching T.V. She knows she’s probably going to hear me play a commercial for a day or so if it gets stuck in my head.
ETA: Bwahahahaha, Ximenean “permanent intermediate”, I’m an advanced primitive!

What, the N train?