Music Theory For Drummers: Pitch, Please! (Part II)

Identifying the Key of a Song

Now that we know how to build a scale, the next step is using your ear to identify various keys of songs. The starting note of the scale, the root, is the most important of the bunch. It should always have a sense of resolution when played. For instance, take C major, and play around on all the white keys. After a while, end on a C, and it should feel resolved. If you were to do the same thing, but land on the B, you’d most likely hear something that appeared to have some tension, something unresolved. That B is the 7th scale degree, and it has a tendency to “pull” the ear, urging it to go back to the root. That root note, also known as the tonic, is something you should try to find with some of your favorite tunes. Just turn on the music and start plunking away until you find a note that feels the most natural in the song, or the most “at home” and resolved. From there, you can try and build a scale.

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What To Do From Here?

Now that you’ve found a key to your favorite song, you can start improvising over it. Get comfortable with all the notes in that key, and start chomping away, one note at a time, and see if you can come up with the main melody of the song, or an alternate riff.

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Feeling comfortable with the concept of the scale? Great. Now let’s start identifying the various notes of the scale using intervals. An interval is a distance between two notes, built out of whole steps and half steps. Here is a list of all the main intervals and how many half steps each of them are:

Note that an uppercase M signifies a major interval, and a lowercase m signifies a minor interval. This will also be the case with major and minor chord symbols later on.

To further clarify, using C as a starting note, a minor 2nd up would be C#, a major 3rd up is an E, and a perfect fifth up is a G. It should make more sense when you see it on the keyboard, as outlined below:

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Regardless of the starting note, an interval will always have the same sound "quality", meaning that a perfect fourth, which is the interval for the first two notes of "Here comes the bride", will always have the same sound, regardless of if it's played on C and F, on G and C, or on F and Bb.

Knowing the structure of the intervals is crucial to further understanding basic music theory, but more importantly, knowing the sound of each interval is critical to experiencing, writing, and learning music. Try tinkering around on the keyboard and listening to the sound of each interval. Then try building intervals off of different starting pitches. If you have a musical friend, have them play intervals like flash cards so that you can guess which ones they are. For further ear training, there are plenty of apps that do the job, with Karajan leading the pack in this department.

Sounds Like…

Most drummers can’t initially just hear an interval and forever retain the sound of it in their memory banks. It takes a lot of practice to make interval recognition second nature. To help aid in both aurally recognizing and memorizing intervals, it’s best to use well-known songs with prominent intervals in their melodic hooks as reference material. The following is a list of songs that feature specific intervals.

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For now, do your best to start training your ear. Daily practice is a must, and it will pay off — not only in the direct form of music theory knowledge, but more importantly in your overall hearing. Your listening will broaden and new elements in songs you already know will begin to materialize right before your ears.

There is still much more to learn in the world of music theory. In the following article, we’ll discuss the building blocks of chords, chord progressions, and typical melodic structures to various styles of music. In the meantime, please don’t hock your keyboard for more drumsticks.

Drum Tuning:

There are many professional drummers out there, like Terry Bozzio and Danny Carey, who have tuned their drums to specific pitches. With the knowledge of basic key structures, you can also tune your drums to various notes. Keep in mind, however, that the drums tend to create indefinite pitches, meaning it's hard to get a single obvious note, like a C#, out of the drum. Instead, there's more of a harmonic smattering of overtones and it takes a bit of creativity to "perceive" one single pitch. Most tuner devices can’t identify an exact pitch from a drum, so it’ll be up to your ear to determine what note is popping out. I find it most effective to tap the head, sing the note, and then find it on the piano.


There are many options for pitch-specific tuning strategies on the kit. Some folks like to do their toms in major or minor thirds (Danny Carey used thirds off of D for their album Ænima), and other folks like fourths. In a perfect world, our kits would be tuned to the key of each song, but that’s logistically unrealistic, unless, of course, you're Terry Bozzio, in which case anything is logistically possible so long as your drum tech has a clean bill of health.

Furthermore, don't fret about tuning to a root note of one song, then subsequently having the kit "out of tune" for the following song. Nobody, including the audience, perceives the drums to have definite pitches, so your drums will never harmonically clash like a guitar or bass would if it was out of tune.

Tone First, Pitch Second

The bottom line for any tuning strategy on the drums is to shoot for timbre first, and pitch second. Every drum has a tuning range where the drum really sings. From there, it can be finely tuned to hopefully play a desired pitch without degradation of tone. Don’t go choking the sound of the drum by reaching for pitches that are simply too high or low for that drum to comfortably produce.

And then, of course, there’s the bottom head, which just throws a nice slimy curve ball into the whole tuning vortex. Some drummers like to tune the resonant head a third up from the batter side, which makes for some confusing physics regarding definite pitches. I recommend viewing the resonant head as second in the order of tuning, and to see it more as a means to adjust the overall tone, rather than the pitch of the drum.

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