What's the deal with drums?
December 6, 2008 10:03 AM   Subscribe

How does percussion work in rock & pop music? I can listen to the drum part in a song and appreciate that it sounds great, but I haven't got the slightest idea how they decide which bangy things to bang on and when.

Why an accent here and not there? How'd they figure out when to repeat the same figure measure after measure and when to change it up? For that matter, I don't even know whether the percussion parts in rock & pop are generally improvised by the drummer or written by the songwriter or delivered by God.

I assume there must be underlying principles, traditions, schools-of-thought. Help me educate myself with recommendations for books or websites or your own insights! I don't need to become a drummer myself, I just want to understand this stuff to the basic level that I understand melody and harmony and chords and the like.
posted by moonmilk to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
In rock and pop an awful lot of it works like this:
Count:   1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
R Hand   x x x x x x x x
L Hand       x       x
R Foot   x       x
Now go start a band.
posted by mandal at 10:24 AM on December 6, 2008 [8 favorites]

Speaking as a drummer, all you do is go with what sounds good. You learn the basics by listening to what other people have done and improve upon it to make the song sound better. I don't use sheet music at all when I play--I just make it up as I go and play what I think will sound best at that particular part in the song.

It's hard to explain, but if you heard a drummer in a 6th grade school band and a more experienced player, you'd understand completely.
posted by DMan at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2008

One thing that would be fun would be to compare the same song with different drum tracks.

But I don't know of any examples of this.
posted by troy at 10:43 AM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: DMan - when you play the same song on different occasions, will your drumming come out slightly - or totally - different from one time to another? After playing the same song a few times, do you tend to find the "right" groove and then play it pretty much that same way in the future?
posted by moonmilk at 10:53 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: "Rock" is so broad that it encompasses exceptions to any candidate for a defining rule, but one of the broadest truths is that rhythmically it derives a lot from some African traditions that got filtered through slaves brought to the Americas. The crucial difference that emerged was a greater emphasis on the back half of a pulsing beat. Four-four and two-four music, which feel most natural to most people, work by sort of pulsing along and oscillating a little bit to accent some beats over others. You can accent the front end of the pulse or the back end of it - pre-rock music tended to emphasize the front end, while African American musical styles tended to accent the back end. You'll hear people talk about the "backbeat" in this vein. The effect of doing this is that the accent tend to jump out a bit more at you, which can lead to the shaking of one's ass or the movement of one's body on a dance floor. This is so common and pervasive now that hearing anything else sounds very flat and smooth to most people's ears. What Mandal doesn't mention above is that the R foot is generally hitting a bass drum on a standard trap set and the L hand is hitting a snare drum, which is a brighter, more attention-grabbing sound so you notice the accents more.

That's just the beginning, of course. The sort of shifting of accents off the usual beats that started there can get pushed even farther out so that you're accenting the back ends of subdivisions of beats for added surprise and impact. (And that can be done with bass or snare drums, or moved to other parts of the kit to change sounds and create an accent that way.) If you listen to something like a James Brown single from the late 60s to mid-70s (when his most famous songs came out), he was driving his rhyhtm sections to do as much of this as possible, changing accents all over the place from measure to measure and then come back to a big, crushing beat on the one. Compare this to a boxer dancing around, faking punches, throwing a jab or two, then coming right at you and landing a haymaker every 16 punches.

There is also a more subtle matter of "feel" or "shuffle" where a drummer will elongate one end of that pulse and come in a little early or a little late to change the feel. Sometimes this gets so exaggerated that it feels like the beats are getting cut into threes instead of twos. A really late accent on the backbeat creates a funkier feel, especially at a slower tempo. Learn from the masters. By comparison, coming in a little early with the snare is known as "jumping" the beat and kind of creates a jumpier, more urgent feel. I always thought "Green Onions" stood out in this respect. I once nearly killed a drummer with my bare hands for jumping the beat when he shouldn't have, but tastes vary on these things.
posted by el_lupino at 10:56 AM on December 6, 2008 [6 favorites]

It may sound silly, but you ought to spend a little bit of time playing drums on the video game Rock Band, or the Guitar Hero that has drums. The games are fun enough, but in terms of music they are complete nonsense. EXCEPT FOR THE DRUMS.

Seriously, go to Best Buy and play drums on Eye of The Tiger.

(Musician, not much of a drummer, not much of a Guitar Hero player)
posted by dirtdirt at 10:59 AM on December 6, 2008

I'm not a musician, but I've always enjoyed this "behind the scenes" footage of Queen working on their song One Vision. You can see drummer Roger Taylor trying out different sounds, and then Freddie gives him specific direction during one part of the song. Of course, at one point Roger is giving Brian guitar advice....maybe once you've worked together for 20 years you feel free to share your opinion wherever and whenever.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:59 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Still learning this kind of thing myself. Google for "drumming rudiments" -- these are a fairly standard set of short phrases. Also get familiar with the Clave patterns, because the basic ones get used constantly.
posted by xil at 11:02 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: Typically for rock and pop music, each song is played almost exactly the same way every time, with variations happening during the fills inbetween each section.

On the other hand, music that is more improvisational, like jazz, usually is played differently every time.

As for what to play, when you are talking about the drum kit, there are standard beats which are used for most rock/pop music, and each drummer just uses variations on these. Each one will give you a different feel than the others, so a drummer finds one that works best with the music.

When you are talking about other types of percussion, that is a whole different story, since most other percussion is used to enhance the main beat, and therefor there is more freedom in what to do.
posted by markblasco at 11:02 AM on December 6, 2008

I second playing Rock Band to get the feel for drums. While there is much debate about how realistic it is, as a drummer I can tell you that the same patterns used for the drums in Rock Band translate exactly to a real drum kit. Rock Band 2 even has a drum training mode, which teaches you about 50 different beats, most of which are standard rock beats that you hear in most songs.
posted by markblasco at 11:05 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: I don't even know whether the percussion parts in rock & pop are generally improvised by the drummer or written by the songwriter or delivered by God.

It's odd that you'd see those 3 as the main options. You've left out "written by the drummer in advance," which in my experience is how it usually works, with a bit of improv here and there.

To be more specific:

The one or two or three main "beats" -- the things that repeat constantly throughout the song -- will usually be more-or-less written in advance. There's not much reason for the drummer to come up with a brand new beat each time the band plays the song; in fact, this would probably throw off the rest of the band.

And yeah, see the first answer, realizing that R hand = hi-hat, R foot = bass drum, and L hand = snare drum. Most rock drum beats are an elaboration on this one basic pattern. If you want to hear a very clear example, listen to the beginning of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reprise (here's a cover version). (The only elaboration there is that it goes bass snare bass-bass snare, instead of just B S B S.)

Then there are "fills," which are more likely to be improvised. Those sound more spontaneous, and they happen only every once in a while -- often when the band transitions from one part to the next, e.g. verse to chorus, or chorus to guitar solo, or at the very end of the song. They sound kind of like the drum beat is "falling apart" or "bursting apart" for a second or two, which is why it wouldn't work to do this kind of improvising throughout the song. And note that they while they should sound improvised, there's no particular reason they can't be planned in advance down to the tiniest detail -- it's generally the drummer's choice.

Can the other band members pitch in ideas? Sure. But when you don't play an instrument, your attempts at composing for that instrument, not to mention communicating your thoughts to another musician, are likely to be awkward (keeping in mind rock musicians rarely write out their parts on paper even if they have the technical knowledge to do so). It's simply more efficient to have a division of labor where the drummer is the expert at coming up with drum parts, and the others don't need to worry about it unless they happen to have some specific concern or idea.

I haven't read any of this in some rule book, but the fact is there are pretty clear rules -- it's not just "whatever sounds good." (This is what I've observed not as a drummer but as someone who's played with drummers.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2008

It may sound silly, but you ought to spend a little bit of time playing drums on the video game Rock Band, or the Guitar Hero that has drums. The games are fun enough, but in terms of music they are complete nonsense. EXCEPT FOR THE DRUMS.

Now as I drummer, I don't agree with this. Sure there are the rhythms that are similar, if not the same, as the actual drum parts of the song, but the feel is entirely different. I'm sorry, but you can't get a real sense of what playing the drums, or any percussion, is like, by playing Rockband.

It's tough to understand drummers without being one, so maybe if you're really that interested, and it sounds like you are, you should check out some basic lessons. Vic Firth(drumstick maker) has some good videos that are worth checking out. It will give you a good sense of the theory and thought behind drumming.
posted by WilliamWallace at 12:14 PM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: The best thing you can do to learn what is going on in percussion is learn to count. Go break out some of your favorite tracks or turn on the radio and practice this. Try nodding your head to the music. Start counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4... (out loud!) every time your head reaches its downward apex. Now, start putting some more emphasis when you say 2 and 4. Punch your fist in the air or slap the table or something. This is what many people would call "the beat" and is probably played on a snare drum. This is the snappy sounding thing that sits in the very middle of most drummer's kit and has silver sides and a white head on it.

Now keep your count at the same pace but add in "and" between every number. The hi-hat or cymbal (high pitched ringing or "chick" sound) is probably being hit on every item. This is marked R Hand in mandel's notation. The bass drum is hit with your right foot on 1 and 3 by a kick pedal.

If you can pick this count out of a song and play the beat that mandal outlines along with a few fills, you can play along to 90% of rock/pop music. While any professional drummer in a band will compose original parts for their band's songs that are more complicated, as long as you can keep that beat going on the 2s and 4s it will sound ok and your band won't get lost. Now to know when the band is going to switch from a verse to a chorus, you need to add something to your counting. Start off the same as before but additionally the first number will keep track of which measure you are on. Like so:


and then go back to starting at 1. If you are counting correctly you will start being able to predict when the band is going to switch it up and break into a solo or from a verse to a chorus etc. Counting music is a skill that will add a lot to your music appreciation, make you a better dancer, and it a great way to pass the time if you are sitting around listening to music. Hope this helps some.
posted by sophist at 12:26 PM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but you can't get a real sense of what playing the drums, or any percussion, is like, by playing Rockband.

You can't get a real sense of playing drums by anything except playing drums. But to say that rhythmically hitting things with sticks and stepping on a pedal in specific order, in specific time to music, won't give a non-drummer SOME sense of what it is like to play the drums is being a bit dismissive, isn't it?
posted by dirtdirt at 12:35 PM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers! I'm going to check out the video and tutorial links later tonight.

The Rock Band suggestion is intriguing. I have a friend who enjoyed playing drums in Rock Band so much that she ended up drumming for a real band. When the Wii version of RB2 comes out, I'll take a look.
posted by moonmilk at 1:00 PM on December 6, 2008

One other thing I just remembered having helped some of my friends learn this is to say the beat out loud before you start counting. The beat sounds like this:

duh-duh-CH-duh-duh-duh-CH-duh-duh-duh-CH-duh-duh-duh-CH- etc...

Then start counting and the CH sound falls on the 2s and 4s. A big part of drumming is being able to compartmentalize different parts of your body and brain. Don't expect this to be easy. You might spend a few hours or days just learning how to do the trick I outline in my first paragraph in the earlier post.
posted by sophist at 1:07 PM on December 6, 2008

Everyone already answered :(
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:14 PM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: But... but you're PercussivePaul! If all your favorite advice has already been posted, please tell me what it's like for you when you develop the rhythms for a new piece.
posted by moonmilk at 1:23 PM on December 6, 2008

You just do whatever feels right. Don't really think about it, just go with the flow.
posted by god particle at 1:36 PM on December 6, 2008

Like this . . . .

Nuf sed.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:12 PM on December 6, 2008

I couldn't resist:

THIS is rock and roll drumming.
posted by GPF at 3:51 PM on December 6, 2008

Sure, the Rock Band drum experience won't give you much in learning the actual technique of playing real drums, but it absolutely does correlate to the basic concepts behind drumming, aka "what piece to hit when".

Whereas pushing a violet button while flipping a flipper has virtually nothing to do with the actual theory or mechanics of playing a guitar.

At this very basic level (the building blocks of why drummers play what they play when they play it), I believe Rock Band would be invaluable in answering a lot of OP's questions.
posted by Aquaman at 3:55 PM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: To answer your (somewhat moot now, with all the other answers) question, yes, most of the time once I come up ideas for a song, it's what I do every time.

As Jaltcoh said, the parts in a song during a transition (from verse to chorus, or whatever) are called fills, and that's when you'll hear things that don't sound like the beat in the rest of the song. Those are definitely more spontaneous, and I've basically memorized and practiced many of those to the point that I can throw one in as needed.

The beat during a song will stay the same once I've decided what to use. In my mind, I have them separated as faster and slower beats, for use in different songs. I pick what I think will sound best, and play that for the song, every time.

So in short--in the beginning it's a creative process as you try to write the drum part for a song, and after that you generally try to play the same thing, or something very similar, every time. It never feels monotonous to me, though.
posted by DMan at 3:56 PM on December 6, 2008

nthing the Rock Band suggestion. I'm musically illiterate and always wondered the same thing about percussion theory. After starting out on "Easy" drums a year ago, I'm now a solid "Expert" player and feel like I have a much better handle on how drums work. I can hear the drums in songs I hear on the radio now, which is something I could never do before. Highly recommend the game.
posted by soonertbone at 4:10 PM on December 6, 2008

I haven't read any of this in some rule book, but the fact is there are pretty clear rules -- it's not just "whatever sounds good."

I disagree. There are rules inasmuch as the drummer is expected to maintain the tempo and meter -- he can't slow down or speed up or change the number of beats in the measure, unless that's a part of the composition -- but there are no rules about which drums to hit on which beats, or where the accents should go. As explained above, there are plenty of conventions for particular styles of music (the aforementioned backbeat is a really important one -- wikipedia has some good in-depth info), but those aren't rules. It does tend to be pretty much whatever sounds good.

Also it's important to remember that the drums aren't the only instrument providing rhythm. If the songwriter is the guitarist or bassist, the parts that those instruments play will often articulate the rhythmic accents and suggest a particular drum part. The drummer can't always just drop in any old beat and have it go well with the other instrumental parts.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:40 PM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: I was going to write something earlier but I didn't have time to read through the thread before I went out. Everyone's said lots of great stuff so far but I think I can add a bit from my own experience.

When my band creates a new song the rhythm usually just sort of happens. Whoever wrote the song plays it on their instrument (guitar or keyboard) and I just "hear" a drum beat. If you listen to enough music and play long enough you will have a sense of what works. At this level you make a stylistic choice about what type of song it is going to be -- hard rock, lighter and more mellow, really fast or really slow -- and that sort of defines the beat you're going to play.

To give you a more concrete example - let's say I'm going to play the basic boom clack boom clack beat that mandal posted in the first comment. If I play the right hand pattern on a closed hihat, it makes a "chk" sound, so the beat sounds something like this (ignore the bass drum for now, just hihat and snare):

chk chk CLACK chk chk chk CLACK chk chk chk CLACK chk chk chk CLACK

But suppose the song's really loud and heavy. Maybe I'll play on the bell of the ride cymbal (clang) instead, and only hit it every quarter note instead of every eighth note, like this (See the bridge at 1:36 of Sweet Child of Mine)

clang CLACKang clang CLACKang

(the CLACKang is the sound of a simultaneous snare and ride cymbal.)

The first beat is more steady, and creates a bit more energy because of the faster hihat pattern, whereas the second is kind of punchier and more appropriate for a loud part of the song. Alternatively, instead of slowing down the right hand pattern I could play it even faster, a la Everlong by the Foo Fighters:


One song is actually likely to contain several slightly different patterns. Say you have a basic rock song - intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge/solo, chorus, ending, or something like that. A good band will not play the entire song at the same volume or intensity; the song will have pacing to it so that it feels like it's going somewhere. Thus the final chorus is much louder and more intense than the first verse. It can be as simple as playing the same pattern but instead of doing chk's on the hihat you do loud crashes on the crash cymbal.

Along those lines, once the basic pattern is set I think the most important thing the drummer does is help shape the song, choose what patterns fit best in what section in order to make the song exciting and interesting. The drummer can also add tension, perhaps by breaking out of the familiar pattern and playing only bass drum for a few bars, only to lay down a big fill and come smashing back into the groove (resolution). Tension and resolution is a big part of music (especially jazz where the players tend to be more conscious of it, but in other styles as well). It's why you have a bridge or a guitar solo between choruses. The chorus may be awesome, but playing it twice in a row is less exciting then sticking a long instrumental build in between.

All players in the band should be on the same page when it comes to shaping the song, because they players have to move together. A song will evolve over time as players try different things, but once it's working pretty well, it should be more or less the same each time, except the fills are slightly spontaneous.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:53 PM on December 6, 2008

I've wondered the same thing as the OP, and these are great answers. The Rock Band thing can't hurt. I wish I'd tried out the demos at my participating big box store before the Rock Band 2 drums were broken and the GH World Tour drums were taken away altogether. Kinda sucks only being able to hit the toms and cymbals on a song.

Wikipedia can also be useful as an introduction.

Another thing I've done is watch drum covers on YouTube. You'll see nitpicks in the comments, but watching a good amateur drummer can really enhance your appreciation for your favorite pro drummers and their music, and get a better idea of when they hit the high hat, crash, or ride. I'm especially fond of Dave Grohl and Stewart Copeland covers myself.

You can also combine two of the above and watch people playing expert drums on RB/GH on YouTube, or watch the in-game drum tutorials there.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 8:59 PM on December 6, 2008

A good example of all-around great drumming: Another Sunday by I Mother Earth. Notice especially the rhythmic tension in the third chorus at 3:20 where the drummer totally throws out the backbeat and plays a triplet feel. The triplet feel doesn't actually fit, it's the wrong number of beats to the bar, so the longer it goes on the more uneasy you feel, like the band's about to lose count or fall apart. Then, big fill and crash into the groove, and everything's all right and you feel good!
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:00 AM on December 7, 2008

There are rules inasmuch as the drummer is expected to maintain the tempo and meter -- he can't slow down or speed up or change the number of beats in the measure, unless that's a part of the composition -- but there are no rules about which drums to hit on which beats, or where the accents should go. As explained above, there are plenty of conventions for particular styles of music (the aforementioned backbeat is a really important one -- wikipedia has some good in-depth info), but those aren't rules. It does tend to be pretty much whatever sounds good.

That just means there aren't strict rules; there are general, flexible rules. If you don't think it's a general rule in rock that the snare is usually hit on 2 and 4, that the hi-hat usually plays steadily, that the crash is used as an accent, that fills are sparingly used to break up the monotony of the regular beat, etc., then you're simply mistaken. But I'm pretty sure you'd agree with me that these are all accurate rules of thumb, which is all I'm saying. Breaking some of these rules to a limited extent is fine -- for instance, switching to a beat where the snare is on 1 and 3 to add some extra momentum to the song. Completely ignoring these rules and writing drum parts on a blank slate would be a recipe for chaos that not many people would be interested in listening to.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:01 AM on December 12, 2008

Like I said, those are conventions, which every style of music has by definition, or it wouldn't be a style of music. But there are plenty of rock songs that don't follow them, and adhering to them slavishly is a recipe for blandness. Whether or not they should be called "rules" is just semantics.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:21 AM on December 12, 2008

Response by poster: Some of you will be pleased, and others horrified, to learn that I got Rock Band 2 with the toy drums. I'll let you know in a year or so whether I have come to a better understanding of rock percussion.

I wonder if there are accessible books about drum theory, like there are about melody and counterpoint.
posted by moonmilk at 1:42 PM on January 4, 2009

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