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Recently, a drums student of mine asked me how I figure music out just by listening to it. This got me thinking...
Contrary to popular belief, learning to play music by ear isn’t as complicated as you may think. In the following paragraphs I’ll outline a framework that will help you accurately decipher what you’re hearing and transpose it onto your instrument.
First things first though, what am I basing this framework on? Let’s suppose that your regular job is figuring out how to play songs on the drums by ear. In order to do your job successfully, as with any other job, you need to go through a mental process of asking yourself a set of specific questions that will help lead you to the correct answer.
So, we need to establish what these questions are. Alongside these questions you’ll also need good timing, and of course patience, as you train and develop your ear.
Question #1: How good is my timing?
A very important aspect of learning by ear is developing your timing – being able to play in time (i.e. not faster or slower, and to the correct time signature) to the song. This means that you will need to pair each stroke to its corresponding drum component on cue.
If you are a beginner, developing your timing doesn’t necessarily start with you playing single strokes on a pad against a metronome – this can be dull, but highly addictive. Rather, try listening to music and clap or tap along to the pulse created by the bass drum. Most popular music is counted in 4/4 (i.e. four quarter notes per measure).
Question #2: What sounds am I hearing?
This question is just as important as Question #1 as you need to cement the groundwork for both before you go any further.
Being able to recognise what each component of the drum kit sounds like and being able to isolate them is crucial. This is for several reasons, including helping you determine:
* It also helps to know who the drummer is, as someone like Terry Bozzio can trick the ear. Simply check out his Samba Ousado and you’ll know what I mean.
Question #3: When are these sounds happening?
Once you are able to recognise the sounds you are hearing, you then need to begin mapping them in your brain. As previously mentioned, think of this as programming a drum beat using MIDI, whereby you allocate sounds along a timeline. This will also enable you to comprehensibly assign each sound to the limb you will play it with.
To begin this process you need to start with a reference point, which can be very abstract. For instance, with the guitar you’d first need to recognise a note within a song, and then determine whether the subsequent note is higher or lower in pitch, and so on.
With drums, the reference point I’d like to demonstrate, given it applies to most popular music, is a basic rock beat (i.e. snare on beats 3 & 5, bass on beats 1 & 7 with eighth notes on the hi-hats).
Being able to count will help you with this. Particularly being able to break 1 2 3 4 down into smaller subdivisions like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + or 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a, and so on.
Once we determine our reference point we’re then able to match it, or in other words, place it directly on top of the beat we’re trying to figure out, making sure that we’re superimposing it at the correct time.
Question #4: What’s happening within the groove or fill that makes it sound like it does?
Once our reference point has been established correctly within our mental timeline, we can then start thinking about what makes the groove different from our reference groove:
Following the above framework will hopefully provide you with a good basis for figuring drum parts out by ear. I’ve tried not to go into excruciating detail, or use too much musical language, in order to keep things at the common denominator – plain English.
What is interesting to me, however, is that not everyone is able to accurately figure music out by ear. This implies there is a certain element of hearing what you want to hear vs. what is actually happening. We need to be as objective as possible throughout the process.
Yet does playing what you hear as opposed to playing what is ‘actually’ being played matter? If not, then once we’ve built our interpretation, we could proceed to refine our results. There are tools online which can help us with this, i.e. tablature, YouTube and its covers, software to slow down a song without losing pitch, etc. The trick, once again, is to remain objective and keep an open mind to other interpretations, as this will further help you hone and tune your ears.
Here are a few tips to further help you in the process.
It’s a lot easier to recognise what’s happening when what you’re hearing is congruent to how you play it. If you’re hearing the hi-hats on your right speaker (or headphone), chances are you’re hearing what it sounds like to be looking at the drummer from an audiences perspective (i.e. Tom-toms will also start highest to Floor Toms from right to left). Ergo, why not try switching your headphones around so that you’re hearing and visualising the kit from the drummer’s seat?
Subdivision of beats
The more you are able to subdivide your 1 2 3 4 count in your head the more freedom you’ll have placing hits in relation to others, no matter what time signature. You want the subdivisions to be endless, giving you a certain fluidity to drop a stroke anywhere you want along your timeline.
07/08/12 @ 9.23am
As drummers we’re conscious of our physical performance and the equipment we use to enhance this or facilitate the greatest physical potential. The criteria we use to assess equipment ranges from comfort (e.g. stools, sticks) to responsiveness (e.g. bass drum pedals) to sound quality (e.g. drum shells, heads, cymbals, etc).
Shoes vs. No Shoes
It is safe to say that comfort-wise, generally speaking, we don’t want anything that inhibits feel and movement; we don’t want to be weighed down. And this is particularly true when it comes to foot gear.
Some players choose to play in socks or totally barefoot to achieve the feeling that the foot is one with the bass drum pedal. However this can have its disadvantages, namely playing barefoot will develop calluses on your feet, and wearing socks makes your feet slip from the pedals, resulting in loss of control.
Shoes, however, provide a number of benefits including greater power, control and protection. Players’ choice tends to be centred on these criteria alongside lightweight and comfort, making shoes like Converse All-Stars and slip-on Vans a common choice.
Striking a balance is where VIVOBAREFOOT comes in – a brand of shoe designed specifically for running whose features just so happen to strike the perfect balance between nude foot and the protected one.
The Aqua Lite model in review features a 3mm (plus a removable inner 3mm sole) that enables the foot to feel the pedal very naturally, it even has an anti-bacterial layer to keep bad stuff away! Furthermore, weighing only 204grams, the shoes feel unbelievably comfortable, which is supplemented by the shoe’s shape that allows the foot expand and contract freely.
These features let the foot perceive the pedal’s response more sharply. Yet the feet still feel protected and, psychologically, provide the feeling of more power behind every stroke achieved by heavier shoes. The brand seems to term this as proprioception, which you can more about here.
In terms of grip of the sole, it’s almost as if the developers of these shoes had drummers in mind. There’s far less sticky factor than a Vans or Converse shoes, which strikes a balance between wearing socks and sole.
And as if that was all, compared to shoes specifically designed for drumming, these are great for everyday wear and look cool too!
Plain and simple, the VIVOBAREFOOT’s Aqua Lites, whilst not specifically designed with the drummer in mind, deliver control, power, protection whilst providing a great feel (as close as you’ll get from playing barefoot) but without the cons (calluses and loss of pedal control). Highly recommended!
Check out VIVOBAREFOOT here
Check out the Aqua Lite model here