Let’s talk drums. I’ve been a bassist / guitarist for about 18 years now, but secretly I’ve wanted to be a drummer. When I started making drum beats in various digital audio workstations (DAW), it was pretty liberating to finally hear the drummer in me come out. If you’re new to making drum beats or just looking to build upon your working knowledge, this article is for you. We’ll start at the beginning with measures and time signatures, discuss the sounds that usually make up the drum kit, and then break down one of my favorite drum tracks to see the whole thing in action. Now, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a drum beat.
Measures and Time Signatures
Back in the day, like the 15th century when Renaissance composers were figuring out how to notate music for the lute (the ancestor of the guitar), they wanted to devise a system that would make it easy to see where the strongest beats occurred on the page. Eventually they came up with the measure (a.k.a. bar). Beginning and ending with bar lines, the measure allows us to see 1) where the strong beats occur in the music, 2) how many beats are in a given segment of time (quantity) and 3) what kind of beats they are (quality). There were patterns in the music and by the 17th century the most common among them was 4 beats per measure with each beat being a 1/4 note (said as “quarter note”)
By the 18th century, European composers fully adopted the practice of adding evenly spaced bar lines and time signatures to their scores which we still see in the modern day DAW. The time signature stated that every measure that followed was comprised of the same number and kind of beats.
Don’t be fooled. Some people will tell you that the time signature is a fraction, but it is not a fraction. The top number tells us how many beats are in each measure (quantity) while the bottom number states what kind of beat each one is (quality). The most common time signature, as I alluded to above, is 4/4 meaning that there are 4 beats in each measure, and each beat is a 1/4 note (OK, there’s a fraction for you).
Remember – the time signature tells us about every measure. So in the picture below, all 4 measures have 4 beats in them and each beat is a 1/4 note in length.
A Quick Word on Drum Sounds
Do you remember learning about graphing in your math classes in school? You know, the thing with the x and y coordinates. Imagine that everything we just discussed about time as the x-axis. If time is our x, what is our y for building drum beats? Answer: The drum sounds. There are three sounds that usually show up in drum beats and they are 1) the kick drum, 2) snare drum, and 3) hi-hat. Are there drum beats out there that don’t use these sounds? Yes, of course and variety is a good thing. But have you noticed anything interesting about the combination of these three sounds? Check it – the kick drum is a low sound; the hi-hat is a high sound; the snare sits somewhere in the middle between the kick and hi-hats. See it? Low, mid, and high. The combination of these three sounds fills out the frequency spectrum, generally speaking. When building your own beats, this will be something you’ll need to take into consideration.
I mentioned above that we’re going to break down one of my favorite drum tracks. The track is “You Got Me” by The Roots and the drummer is ?uestlove (personally my favorite drummer). Check this song out now and listen for the kick, snare, and hi-hats – you’ll hear it. We’ll break it down in the next section.
The Roots “You Got Me” Break Down – Measure by Measure
Here is the main drum beat from “You Got Me” played twice through (please note that this isn’t the beat for the entire song but it doesn’t stray too far away, and it’s the first thing we hear so it’s our point of reference):
A quick recap: The time signature is 4/4 (4 beats per measure, each beat is a quarter note), there are 4 full measures, and it has the low, mid and high drums sounds as mentioned above – We got our x and y axes covered. So now what? How did ?uestlove build that drum beat? What secrets about rhythm does he know that we don’t? There are many things that he’s doing in this track, so let’s break it down measure by measure.
You can do the research on the norms for certain genres of music and how drum beats are built in them, i.e. dubstep is at 140 BPM with the kick on beat 1, the snare on beat 3 to create a half-time feel, and a quicker hi-hat part borrowed from 2-step. That’s great and all, but what about the details? How / Why / When do you add the extra drum hits? Allow me to introduce you to the secret rule of 2s and 3s.
No matter what the genre, tempo, time signature, etc., all drum beats can be broken down into small groupings of two or three units of time. If you look at the MIDI note editor for Measure 1 (and all of the other measures), you’ll notice that the measure is separated into 16 equal parts. The notes that fill up those spaces are called 1/16 notes (said as sixteenth notes). In this track you will find a strategic placement of groupings comprised of two or three 1/16 notes.
To the details: The hi-hat part is just straight 16th notes – very simple. It allows you to focus on the kick and snare drums while still adding to the overall rhythm (sometimes referred to as the “Composite Rhythm”). So this hi-hat part is not where we’re going to find the 2s and 3s. It must be in the kick or snare part, or both.
Take a look at the yellow and orange hi-lights that I’ve added to the picture. What do you notice? The yellow shows us where the grouping of two sixteenth notes are and the orange shows us where the grouping of three sixteenth notes are. As you can see in Measure 1, ?uestlove is mixing the two together. Go back and listen to the loop of Measure 1 and see if you can hear the 2s and 3s.
Hopefully you could see and hear the 2s and 3s in Measure 1. In Measure 2 we have eight groupings of two 1/16 notes (8 x 2 = 16). This one might be a little difficult to see how some of the groupings count as 2s, but suffice it to say that when I listen to the track I don’t hear the “round” sound of 3s as I do in Measure 1. Use and trust your ears on this one.
One other point to make: What do you notice between Measure 1 and Measure 2? They’re different from each other, and that’s part of what makes this beat so interesting to listen to. More on that at the end.
The astute listener will notice that Measure 3 is exactly the same as Measure 1 so nothing new here. But one cool thing to point out is the use of a palindrome in the sequence of the groupings: 2 2 3 2 3 2 2. See how it’s the same thing backwards and forwards? That’s called a palindrome. Anyone know Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (1972)? That entire piece is based on the use of a shifting palindrome – a true minimalist masterpiece.
Wouldn’t you expect Measure 4 to be the same as Measure 2 based on what we saw in Measure 3? What he did instead is give us new material to listen to. Now take a look at the 2s and 3s – see a pattern? Here’s what I see / hear: 2 3 3 | 2 3 3. It’s not the repetition that we might have expected, but it’s repetition nonetheless.
OK – so we now know a lot about the anatomy of a drum beat: 1) time is a huge factor (measures and time signatures), 2) the sounds that make up the drum kit cover a large portion of the frequency spectrum, and 3) the combination of the 2s and 3s is important to the overall (composite) rhythm and the all important groove.
One final thought for you. How much do you know about rhyme schemes in poetry? Take this example from William Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”:
(A) Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
(B) Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
(A) Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
(B) And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Look at the last word of each line. “Day” rhymes with “May”. “Temperate” rhymes with “Date”. The day/may lines are labeled A and the temperate/date lines are labelled as B. The pattern you get when you analyze it is ABAB.
Now the fun part: Transfer that knowledge of rhyme schemes in poetry to ?uestlove’s drum beat. What is the rhyme scheme of this beat? The answer: ABAC.
Let’s be realistic – Do you think ?uestlove was thinking about all of this while working on this beat? Probably not all of it, but I bet he was thinking of some details like the “rhyme scheme” for example. The rest must have just come naturally to him, and that comes with years of practice and experience. For an added bonus, check out the drum and bass section at the 3:25 mark for some artful “linear drumming”. I hope this helped you see what drum beats are made of while studying one of the greats. Next time we’ll dig a little deeper and play around with different time signatures.
Written by Patrick Cupo, Director of Curriculum Development
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