Tuesday, April 13, 2021

A player's analysis of drumming

For a long time I've been thinking about developing a system of analysis for drumming, like the harmonic analysis you do in college theory courses, deciding the function of every note in a composition. Doing something like that for drumming would require a different approach. I don't care about the theory aspect— this would be for clarity in thinking about our instrument, in teaching, listening, and playing.

Probably some doctoral student has already thought of this, but I'm not optimistic about the value of that for players. I've tried reading scholarly pieces on subjects in which I would normally be interested, and I couldn't do it— the academic language and format just wipes out whatever value they might have had for me.

In the broadest sense, this is about understanding “what is the drummer doing? What was the purpose of playing that? What's the function?”

We could start by thinking about the broad categories of playing: 

Composed parts 
The drummer is playing fixed, pre-composed “parts.” Often worked out in the studio with a producer, or by drummers who are just oriented that way. For example Dave Grohl playing on Nevermind, or Neil Peart playing his worked-out parts, or Terry Bozzio playing Frank Zappa's The Black Page. 

Reading performances
Big band drumming, studio drumming, show and theater drumming— professional situations where there are complex written arrangements. The drumming is largely functional within the arrangement, but the drummer has some freedom to interpret. 

Ad lib performances
The drummer shows up and plays. Perhaps this suggests that the drummer's musical personality may be featured, to some extent. Much of jazz drumming falls in this category. In rock, perhaps Mitch Mitchell or Keith Moon. 

Genre performances
A kind of ad lib performance, but the player mostly just states the genre. For example, Rockabilly, some Blues, Gypsy Jazz, some Latin styles.  

Tracked performances
Drumming performance is assembled in the studio in multiple passes, possibly some sequenced parts, possibly by more than one drummer. See: a lot of heavily-produced music since the 80s. 

Sampled performances
The drumming performance is digitally assembled by a producer— re-inventing a track a drummer recorded specifically for that record, or sampling the drumming from someone else's previously released record. 

We can also talk about broad categories of time feels:

Simple pulse
Think Motown, some Country, possibly Phil Rudd with AC/DC, or Ndugu Leon Chancler playing Billie Jean. 

Genre pattern
A stock pattern communicating a style— a jazz cymbal rhythm, a shuffle, a surf beat, DC Go Go, most Latin patterns.  

Composed pattern
A unique pattern created by the drummer for a particular piece of music, a la 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Changuito with Los Van Van.  

Quasi ad lib pattern
A partly or mostly non-repeating genre feel. A lot of modern jazz might fall in this category— Elvin Jones on McCoy Tyner's Passion Dance, Tony Williams on Walkin', from Four & More. 

Free groove
A mostly non-repeating time feel, not in a particular genre, for example an ECM-type feel— see Jon Christiansen playing with Keith Jarrett, or Bob Moses on Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life.  

“Spacy stuff” as we use to say in high school— percussion colors. Think Tony Williams on Fall, recorded by Miles Davis. 

Playing free texture not stating a particular tempo. Rashied Ali on Coltrane's Interstellar Space. 

We can also decide what the drummer is doing right now, on this part of this tune: 

Playing time
Playing a groove, of whatever description— genre, ad lib, composed, whatever.

Playing ensemble figures
Hitting drums and cymbals in unison with something the band is playing. 

Playing between ensemble figures, filling open spaces in the arrangement. 


Stopping and resting as part of an arrangement, or as an ad lib arrangement element.  

Laying out
Drummer doesn't play on this tune, or this section of the tune. 

Or co-soloing. Or otherwise creating free texture. Maybe an intro, or solo break, or featured solo or duo. 

Of course many of these categories will overlap— not many will be strictly one thing or another. And I don't know if this really constitutes analysis yet. But it's a starting place for a conversation. I'll look at a particular recording on these terms soon, and see what that gives us. 

And maybe on another day we can get into this on a more granular level, looking at individual notes— which ones state the main idea, which are filling out a texture, which are embellishments or extemporaneous— and see if that kind of thinking has any value. 

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