Do drummers count drum beats separate for each limb, or coordinated all together?
March 2, 2009 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Do drummers count drum beats separate for each limb, or coordinated all together?

How do drummers count the beats?

When I'm playing Rock Band drums, I tend to count them all together. For example, a standard rock beat would be something like chick-chick-chick-chtah-chick-chick-chick-chboom. It plays all together in my head, the hi-hat+snare or hi-hat+bass is a single coordinated movement. On more complex rhythms, I just think about the sequence, (say, hi-hat,wait,hi-hat,snare,hi-hat,ride+snare+bass, wait), with no regard to the interval between beats (I actually learn the coordinated movements to do the combinations). And in polyrhythms (say, the bass line in 3/4 and snares/hats in 4/4), I end up learning the entire sequence until the bass line and the snare join up again.

However, I see people making a big deal out of "limb independence" (forgot the actual word), and even some beginner hints seem to imply that the right way to go is to think about and time your limbs independently. I interpret this as meaning that you don't think about the sequence/coordinated movements, but just about the periods/displacements of the movements of each limb (for example, right hand goes hat *3, ride; left hand goes wait,half-wait, snare, half-wait, wait, wait; bass goes wait, wait, wait, hit),and thus when you hit the snare, bass and ride at the same time, it's not a single coordinated movement, but just 3 independent limb movements that happened to be at the same time for this beat.

For example, one of the hints is, when learning a hard song, start with the bass, then add the snare, and finally the hi-hat. For me it's the opposite - in complex beats I can't possibly time the snares without the hi-hats (I mean, I can by looking at the screen, but not in my head). So the way I go is hats, then snares, finally bass.

Can someone who drums for real explain how a beat works in your head?
posted by qvantamon to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
mmmmm, we just play it. the thinking part of the brain just gets in the way. that's where the years of practice come into play. just like a pianist doesn't think about which finger is going where at what time.

this is probably not helpful. sorry. keep practicing and eventually you will not think about it, you will just play it.
posted by Aquaman at 2:10 PM on March 2, 2009

Regulate the hi-hat and the bass and go crazy on everything else inbetween. But yeah, just play it. If you enjoy it then buy a drum kit, I've never played Rock Band drums but it doesn't look half as fun as the real thing.
posted by fire&wings at 2:12 PM on March 2, 2009

I would tell you at the beginning learning stages, it is a bit of counting out per limb, and putting them together. As you progress however, the goal is to be able to just do this by feel. I like the example of the piano player, if I think of every finger going to a certain place, I would be lost. Drummers just learn to get the feel, and that is where the fun begins. If you are just starting out on "real" drums, you will have to learn that.
posted by snoelle at 2:19 PM on March 2, 2009

Response by poster: OK, taking out the brain part, and going into the entirely physical part:

for a simple hat, hat+bass, hat, hat+bass+snare - do you do the hat+bass+snare as one movement (lean back, then lean into the bass and move your hands together), or do you do it as separate movements (right foot stomps on the bass, right hand hits the hat, left hand hits the snare).

For the people talking about going by feel - what about a hard beat you've never seen before? How do you go about learning it? I can understand going by feel in simple/common beats, but I suppose you don't go by feel when playing a Rush song for the first time?
posted by qvantamon at 2:26 PM on March 2, 2009

Best answer: Aquaman's right; after enough playing it does operate below the conscious level. I would never think something as laborious as "wait, wait, wait, hit". Instead you think 'boom ba-boom cha ticka boom boom cha' and your hands and feet just play it.

If I do ever have to learn a complex beat (which is rare since I usually just make them up myself), I imagine I would learn each limb's pattern one at a time. If there is a complex cymbal pattern, I would not be thinking "hit hit wait hit hit hit wait wait hit"; I would translate it to "ding dinga-ding da ding ding da-ding ding", so that I can just play that line independently. Once each arm and leg knows what it is doing I would practice them all together, very slowly at first in case they want to fight with each other, then speeding up until it's comfortable.

On preview: Actually I think this varies according to drummer and style, but I would think of them as separate movements which happen to occur simultaneously, rather than one co-ordinated movement.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:31 PM on March 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with the others who don't really understand what you're asking. You really do just play it. As for your example I don't really understand what you mean by leaning back, or separate movements. I think you're thinking this too much. If you have to hit the hi-hat, the snare and play the kick at the same time you just do that.

Maybe the only thing that I can think of is that there's a prioritizing of activity level, i.e. as you play the hi-hat more then that becomes sort of the default and the other kick and the snare fit in with that at regular intervals, but that's overthinking it as well.

Oh, and as far as leaning new beats is concerned, you either try to work out what the drummer's doing and do that (with practice) or you read it (if it's written down) and you learn it that way.
posted by ob at 2:39 PM on March 2, 2009

P.S. there should be no leaning involved. Your arms pivot mostly at the elbows and your leg just stomps up and down; you should be able to keep your torso pointing straight while you play. Watch Buddy Rich and see how still his upper body is.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:43 PM on March 2, 2009

Asking drummers to think about our thinking is like asking a fish to breathe about oxygen.

But OK...I do remember when learning that I had to program each body part to keep doing what they're doing while the other limps change slightly for fills or's why you hear beginning drummers start beats on the ride or hihat first before adding the syncopation of the bass and snare.

dingdingdingding dingdingdingding dingdingdingding dingdingdingding
BOOMdingBAPding BOOMdingBAPding BOOMdingBAPding BOOMdingBAPding

So those people are probably right that drummers think of each limb as somewhat independent. Whether Rock Band drums have anything to do with drumming on real drums I leave to the experts. I am terrible at rock band, and only virulently mediocre at drums.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:04 PM on March 2, 2009

You're asking about the coordination involved in playing the drums, and a drummer no more counts separately for each limb than a pianist does for each finger. In something like Rock Band, the analog would be to know that when two signals are on the screen that you can know that it means limb x and limb y. Plus, they're patterns, you know?
posted by rhizome at 3:09 PM on March 2, 2009

Once you've practiced the drums enough, you can think about the interesting parts (whatever makes this new beat "new") while doing the rest on auto pilot. It's a lot like *literally* walking and chewing gum at the same time. You'd be bewildered if someone asked you what part you thought about while you were doing it.
posted by originalname37 at 3:11 PM on March 2, 2009

Not a drummer, but years of saxophone in a marching band - I was no more thinking about what I was doing with my hands or my feet than I was playing the calliope. Once you learn how to play an instrument, for me and the people I was in band with, you just . . . KNOW after a while. (FWIW I find Rock Band atrociously difficult, no matter the setting, because there is something not quite right between the beat of the music as my brain hears it and the way the thing expects me to play it.)
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:27 PM on March 2, 2009

Best answer: If I'm learning a new beat that is complex or one that I've never played before I do it just as you describe. When I'm reading sheet music I tend to treat each beat as one movement almost like a sequencer. However that is just the learning process and it sounds odd when you play it. Not until I can play it without thinking in blocks does it turn into a beat. So I guess in my case the answer is that only while learning something new do drummers think that way. That sort of stuff tends to go unconscious pretty fast though.

This is coming from someone who hasn't achieved "limb independence" that really skilled drummers have. Also on preview what originalname37 said.
posted by kinakomochi at 3:34 PM on March 2, 2009

I drum a little myself, it's not my main instrument but like the guys above it's not something I really think about (but I'm also not that good). But, I did know a guy in the music school here for drums. Great drummer, he was good but it took him a full year of practicing to learn to read music before he could get in. He was already good when he first applied but he never learned to read music and from what I understood it's very technical and very much in your head. Most rock drummers don't read music but when have them try and I can pretty much guarantee they'll have no idea what to do, you have to conciously think what each limb has to do at what time. I'm sure over time it gets better and more natural but for a while you're going to need to think of each limb independently.
posted by BrnP84 at 3:37 PM on March 2, 2009

Best answer: Limb independence is essentially the ability to improvise with a given limb over the drum pattern you are playing. It is a developmental goal of drumming, not a foundational approach.

The easiest way to learn drum patterns is the way most people have described already. You have to break down the pieces at first, but it only becomes a beat when everything is coordinated and happens at the same time, every time.

This is basically the opposite of limb independence, and the drawback is that in order to change the pattern of any one limb, you essentially have to learn a whole new pattern on all four limbs. Something as simple as adding an off-beat bass drum hit can put you back at square one.

Once you develop a small amount of limb independence, from playing enough different types of patterns and beats, you can develop and learn new beats that much more easily. This is limb independence stage one. It's what you need to pull of a spontaneous drum fill or to pick up on the bass guitar/rhythm guitar feel in a jam session.

Full independence is the ability to arrange four limbs of drums at will, each limb playing its own little solo on the drum set at once. Complete limb independence is pretty rare and mostly seen in drummers that improvise a lot (jazz being the classic example).
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 6:37 PM on March 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is the best book ever written on exactly this topic. It's an instructional thing, but it explains how to develop interdependence between the limbs. It's written by Marco Minneman.

So the answer to your question is yes to both. When learning a complex beat that involves layering different time signatures on each limb, drummers will learn the part by counting out each limb.

But after a time, when the drummer has developed the muscle memory for that part, they just play it without thinking about each limb. They just move as a whole unit playing the part.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 7:55 AM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

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