Thursday, January 10, 2013

The melodic drummer

Short and boring, but a melody.
Not to be confused with the excellent blog of the same name. I've gotten involved into some fairly contentious discussion of the role of melody in drumming recently, so I thought I'd elaborate a little bit on this.

I guess I don't need to continuously point out that I'm a player and a teacher, not a scholar. I can't promise that what I say here won't get you in trouble with your Musicianship 101 prof, but he has his job and I have mine. What we're talking about here is something that helps people become better, more musical drummers, using musical terms in service of our creative process: as tools for understanding and applying our craft, rather than for textbook/dictionary correctness. I don't believe I'm playing fast and loose with the terminology, but I imagine it might take some argument to convince certain theory people of that.

First, the idea of melodic drumming— or melodic awareness in drumming— is not meant to replace the normal construction of music, or meanings of terms, or the normal job of a drummer. And it does not necessarily mean a different kind of drumming than we are all familiar with. We just want to add melodic self-awareness to the drummer's purview.

Melody and rhythm are inherent to any musical line; they would be considered primary characteristics— the X and Y axis. A musical line is a series of two or more single notes meant to be taken together as a musical statement. A note is any sound placed in a musical context.

Melody = the pitch element
Every sound has a pitch, even if it's very complex, noisy, untempered, or hard to nail down exactly— the types of sounds we usually deal with as drummers. It's been said that a clearly defined, tonal pitch is required, but I don't agree. Normally there's an implication that the pitches change over the course of a melodic line, but that's not necessary— one note played over and over is still a melody.

Melody with regards to percussion can be a little slippery, not only because of our noisy, non-tonal, untempered sounds, but also because we have no system of melodic organization; no equivalent to scales or modes. We deal broadly in high and low sounds, with varying timbres, organized purely intuitively, according to the creativity of the individual.

Rhythm = the time element
The placement of notes in time. One note followed by another note sometime in the same piece of music = rhythm. From the listener's perspective, the notes would need to be perceived as being part of the same musical statement to be perceived as rhythm. A single cowbell note followed by a second one later in the day, after the listener has eaten dinner and binge-watched season 9 of Matlock, would not normally be perceived as rhythm.

For drummers' purposes, melody also refers to a quality of being tune-like. According to my definition above, everything we play on the drums has a melodic element, but that doesn't mean everything will reasonably sound like a song. It's a challenge hearing a tune in very “drumistic” playing— say, an endless run of very fast paradiddles. In playing music, I use this idea in a very broad way, treating rhythm, articulation, dynamics, timbre and pitch as part of the “tune” of a line I'm playing.

More, including examples, after the break:

Melodic interpretation
Reading a melodic line on the page, and translating it into drummer language. This is a familiar concept if you've followed this blog for more than, say, one minute; or if you've done any of the usual things that are done with the book Syncopation. It's a very important concept, but slightly different from my major point here, which is about perceiving music played on the drums as melodic in itself.

Non-melodic drumming
Technically— according to me— there is no such thing; but if we think of melodic drumming as “drumming in which a perceptive listener can hear tune-likeness”, then simple percussion— which only fulfills its most primitive functions: marking the beat, making splashes of noisy color, and making sound effects— could be called non-melodic. The same could be said of some very dense rudimentally-based drumming— see the Buddy Rich example below. Calling those things melodic feels like a reach.

The take-away
Just becoming aware of these things should begin taking your playing into a more musical, less “drummery” direction. You can introduce them into your playing by:
  • Listening for tune-likeness in everyday things you play. 
  • Beginning to think in terms of lines.
  • Deliberately trying to be tune-like. 

We could dedicate a complete discussion on how to do each of those things, but that's for another day. Creativity is what happens when you try to implement a partially-understood idea, so for the time being I don't think it's a bad thing to not have fully fleshed-out these basic concepts.


Ari Hoenig — Billie's Bounce

Here's an example of someone playing an actual, tonal melody on the drums. As a prelude to demonstrating a series of exercises, Hoenig plays the head of the Charlie Parker tune Billie's Bounce, mostly with the correct pitches— though I haven't sat down with the piano to determine if he's playing in the usual key:

Roy Haynes — In Walked Bud / Thelonious Monk — Misterioso

Start at 9:20. Here Roy Haynes famously emulates the tune of In Walked Bud. You can follow along on my transcription, if you'd like.

Ed Blackwell — Free Jazz / Ornette Coleman — Free Jazz

Start at 33:50. This is clearly a two note melody, played on the tom toms. Billy Higgins plays a little counter-melody on the bell of the ride cymbal.

Buddy Rich — drum solo

Usually I would give Buddy as an example of a relatively “non-melodic” drummer, but you can hear that he uses a number of brief melodic passages using the tom toms and bass drum in particular:

John Cage — Third Construction

 It's easy to hear the melodic content in this modern percussion ensemble piece played largely on tin cans and tom toms:

Rick Allen — Rock of Ages / Def Leppard — Pyromania

The opening of this old chestnut is an example of a basic, fairly tune-like, rock beat:

For further reading, you can also visit Andrew Hare's The Melodic Drummer, linked at the top of the post. I also just happened to stumble across a research project on this subjecdt by a drummer named Michael Jordon.

1 comment:

Andrew Hare said...

This a great summary of the concept, thanks for breaking it down Todd!