How To Learn Songs

Kenny Aronoff & Shawn Pelton Share Their Personal Methods For Learning Songs Fast

It’s the drummer’s job to mark the boundaries of the song. No, not like a dog, dog! A drummer is the nimble guide that points out the paths and pitfalls of a journey. Drummers, holding sticks instead of a map, have to signify, with appropriate beats, fills, and dynamics, all the important musical shifts in a song. Even if the drummer’s musical decision is to play a straight beat all the way through, he still has to know the form of the song. The drummer has to know the lay of the land, and that means he needs to know how to expertly learn songs.

The need to learn songs comes at drummers in several forms. Maybe it’s a Broadway show, and there’s a “book” of charts to be sight-read. Maybe it’s a garage band situation, and the drummer is learning one batch of favorite tunes. Sometimes demos are sent in advance of a job, and the drummer is expected to have a good grasp when he or she arrives at the rehearsal or audition. For a tour, a drummer might need to learn an artist’s whole library. On a session with an artist the song might be explained on the spot, quickly, and then the drummer expected to record, right now, tastefully and expertly. Try this one: you’re subbing for Anton Fig on The Late Show With David Letterman, and you need to be able to play a whole bunch of songs without rehearsal, like Shawn Pelton did.

“On the Letterman show there’s no book,” recalls Pelton. “The horn section has one, but not the rhythm section. And they know three or four hundred songs. There’s no drum book, you just show up. And it’s not stuff like ’Midnight Hour’ or ’Celebrate,’ stuff you’d do on a club date. They’ll do something like ’Too Much’ by Dave Matthews, which has a long, involved form, if you really look at it. So I took the time to make notes and form charts so I could show up and do good. A show like that, they’re not going to rehearse with you for a week so you can get up and running on 300 tunes. I wrote out like 70 or 80 form charts for that gig.”

Pelton is the house drummer on Saturday Night Live and a very busy session player in the Big Apple. He gave us more details of his take on the art of the chart. “For me, just identifying how many bars there are to each section is a huge first step. It’s the most basic thing I do. I buy tons of these long legal pads. And everything is in pencil, because stuff changes.”

For the newbies, let’s be clear and say that sections of songs are the distinct musical components of the song, such as “verse” or “chorus.” In formal musical notation, these distinct sections are separated not just by bar lines but by double bar lines. In a way, all the other musicians in the band have but one ongoing musical question for the drummer: “Dude, where are the double bar lines?”

The double bar lines, we could say, are a concept borrowed from formal musical notation. But not all charts are formal, and as long as the chart communicates the idea of the sections, of the double bar lines, it will work. “Some people write it out like they’re doing their own drum chart; I don’t really do that,” Pelton explains. “I make something more like a form chart: how many measures to each section. If there’s particular hits or figures or rhythms I’ll write that down, too.

“And the beat, the basic beat. I’ll write that down, and if it’s different in, say, the chorus, then I’ll write down that, too. I’ll definitely write stuff on the charts that cues me, like ’hi-hat tight’ or whatever. What is the beat to this song? If someone’s learning 30 different tunes, then it would be extremely helpful if they wrote out, globally, the beat of each tune and the form. Then when they get to that tune, they’d at least be in the ballpark, and not off playing some funny beat. I’ll also write down a bpm and I use a metronome. Tempo references can really be a lifesaver.”

In rock, pop, and country music, the drummer plays repetitive beats that usually — but not always — vary from section to section. These sections, divided by conceptual “double bar lines” might also get “announced” by a fill or other variation in the beat. The chart is there to remind the drummer of the beats and the sections and where to put the musical “announcements.”

Pelton, we could say, is talking about notating the musical choices he’s made or been shown so that he can repeat them. He’s talking about selecting the right beat and tempo for the song and marking the “double bar lines” with what he’s playing. Because he does this, the other musicians can rest assured: Captain Pelton knows where we are and he knows what he’s doing. We won’t end up on the rocks. The beats and tempos and fills that he, like any great drummer, chooses to play are completely related to the structure of the song. What is the result if, instead, the drummer just hauls off on the wrong beat and the wrong tempo and does fills whenever he feels like it? Bad drummer. No cookie. Any Keith Moon insanity has to happen at just the right time, and the big fill (if there is one) leading to the chorus has to be in the right place. It all relates to the structure of the song. Great drummers are great guides.

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To accurately follow the structure of the song, paper helps. Paper is good. Eventually, the song may be memorized, but first it will be on paper, in some fashion. There has long been a sad superstition in drumming that reading music can dull the excitement of the performance. Not true. But it isn’t necessary to write out all the notes, either. The point of the formally notated chart is to communicate to the musician what needs to be played. Same with a cheat-sheet, or a hybrid shorthand chart. The point of a chart is to communicate, and the point of learning songs is to be prepared.

Pelton, who has loads of schooling and experience, could write out all the notes if he wanted to. Sometimes, certainly, he has to read detailed and formal charts. But he isn’t a stickler for formality. “There was a film date I did a while back, and everything was written out, almost like classical music. So in a situation like that the ability to read well can really pay off. But that’s not to say that you can’t make a living playing drums with no reading skills.

“Knowing basic song forms is important, for example understanding how a blues form works, knowing it’s a form — that can be a real breakthrough for players. Any drummer that understands form and how the other musicians are operating within it will do better with the music.” Pelton explained that understanding the chord structures that go along with basic forms is also very helpful, and he says, “Having a sense of form, as a drummer, is crucial to setting up a song, because it frees me from the details and allows me to focus on getting a groove going with what falls under my hands and from my body naturally. The fact that I know what the form is means that I can set up the tune with grooves and changes in parts that are appropriate musically.”

And the parts that are appropriate musically will relate to the form. For example, in System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey,” drummer John Dolmayan makes musical choices to rest, to play aggressively, to play a half-time feel, to play a double-time punk beat, all in relation to the different sections of the song. And his choices mark those sections for the other musicians as well as for the listener. His drum parts are exciting because what they say fits so well with what the other instruments are saying. A drummer playing “Chop Suey” needs to put all the parts in their right places or the results will be lousy.

DRUM! also chatted with Kenny Aronoff, and asked him, “Why not just memorize the song?”

“Some people have incredible memories,” said Aronoff. “But that’s a hard thing to do when it’s a long song with no repeats, and they want you to remember what you did on Monday and now it’s Friday.” Aronoff plays sessions with lots of different people all over the map, and is a master of both formal charts (he can read violin concertos on marimba, for Pete’s sake!) and also his own style of cheat sheets. He also believes that paper is good.

“I might learn a lot of songs in a week. I once did three records in eight days, one in Minneapolis, one in Indianapolis, and one in L.A. That’s about 30 songs.” And not a lot of time for memorizing.

“I just did an album with Tony Iommi and Glenn Hughes, and one tune was ten-and-a-half minutes long, with five movements, tempo changes, ritards, completely different beats in different sections. I never would have been able to memorize it in the time I had, but with a chart I could just follow it. I wrote all the sections out, made my chart; we recorded it in two takes.

“Remember: when you build a fence, you put the fence posts in first, then you fill in the fencing. That’s the way I write charts,” Aronoff says, and we could interpret that to mean first mark the double bar lines. Map out, however you like, the sections of the song, then begin marking the minutiae. You can also see in Aronoff’s chart example that he uses a combination of standard rhythmic notation and his own shorthand to guide him through the song. He can write these charts out quickly and accurately.

“Sometimes I just use notebook paper. First I try to get the sections: this many measures verse one, pre-chorus, chorus ... at the very least, the amount of measures for every section, and I’ll write out the basic beat for each section. I show the changes in the beat. If it goes to open hi-hat, I write ’open hi-hat,’ if it’s closed hi hat, I write ’closed hi hat.’ I might write on the chart, ’Ringo Fill,’ ’Nirvana style,’ ’Keith Moon,’ whatever. I put an arrow for drum fills. If it’s a specific drum fill I write it out. I can write every note and I can read it — breakdowns, rests, ’don’t play here,’ — so I can play the whole song.”

Both Pelton and Aronoff blend cribbed notes with traditional notation and also word-cues — like the “Keith Moon” on Aronoff’s chart (Pelton has “Charlie Watts” written on one of his) — that feed cues to the amassed musical information in their head. Seeing “Keith Moon” on the chart only means something if Moon’s work is familiar, just as seeing “Basie Style” on a big-band chart only helps if you’ve studied Basie. The shorthand of song charts is a blend of general reminders and specific reminders, and it helps to have a large mental library of notable bands and drummers and their distinctive traits. That way, when cribbing those country tunes, the drummer can write “Ray Price Shuffle” on the paper and know what it means.

In rock, pop, and country music, the verses and choruses are the most easily remembered parts of the song. They are often framed by clever bridges, turnarounds, and riffs. Knowing the band is playing the verse does not necessarily prepare the drummer to guess the next section, as sections vary in lengths such as double verses, half-choruses, a six-bar bridge, or maybe one extra bar before the chorus. The drummer needs to know the road map of the song. That’s why the first thing Pelton and Aronoff do is to count the number of measures in each section. Counting prevents surprises.

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Using “Chop Suey” as an example again, we could count out the measures in each section, and we see that the main parts, the repeating parts, are not always presented in the same length. Sometimes four bars, sometimes eight, sometimes 16. They need to be counted. And there’s that one bar of double-time feel and, later, one bar of rest, used as links between main parts. This slight variation in the presentation of the three really cool main parts keeps the listener interested and adds that lovely dynamic tension.

This clever jumbling of the song’s building blocks is common in good songwriting, and it is imperative for drummers to be able to recognize both the standard arrangements and the clever variations that go into great songs. Songs will make sense more quickly to the player who is familiar with several variations of common song forms and can write them down quickly. Sometimes time is tight. The drummer might have to learn fast.

“On the Sheryl Crow thing,” Pelton says, referring to the singer-songwriter with whom he has performed on recordings and TV shows, “she might just sit down and play it through. And some artists don’t want to sit there and play it through ten times, so understanding form will help you get through that.”

Aronoff gives another example. “In Nashville they move very fast,” he told us, “Usually you hear a song twice before you record. On the first run-through someone will start writing a chart, using the Nashville numbers system, then play through it one more time to make sure the chart’s right, then they photocopy it for everyone, then you record. So you have to do a lot more memorizing. You have to pay attention.” Nashville producers may be anxious to get the tape rolling, but Aronoff has a good pitch in defense of his careful charting. “If someone is antsy, then I let them know, ’When I get this thing done, you won’t have to stop for me. You’ll never have to stop because I don’t know the song.”

These guys write what they need, be it a lot or a little. “I’ve gotten really good at writing charts,” Aronoff says, “If I had the time, I could write out every single note I hear on the demo. I don’t even go out and do a take until I have the chart exact, so that I can play through the song perfectly. I know all the sections, all the beats, so if I make a mistake it’s because I’m reading wrong. That chart has every measure, every beat.”

Pelton says, “On the SNL band, we have an actual book, over seven- or eight-hundred tunes, but the charts are real detailed, transcribed from the record.” Pelton didn’t write those charts, which were most likely hired out to arrangers. Apparently they are more detailed than is needed for the application. “What I did on those is I actually put my crib notes over the charts,” Pelton explains. “So I at least know what the form is, and any other kind of notes that might help me play the chart, but I’m not reading every sixteenth-note Garibaldi played on ’What is Hip?’”

The point is to equip yourself with whatever you need and to eliminate distractions. “As anal as this all sounds, you know, the legal pad and all the notes, I will say that it’s also important to be able to let go and just play as organically as possible, like a jazz drummer,” Pelton adds. “I was a jazz major in school, and that whole thing is not all about one specific part, whereas in pop music it can be the same exact part over and over. It helps to be able to go 180 degrees both ways. There’s no rules in this.”

We asked Aronoff if he learned to write charts in school. “Nobody taught me how to do this, I just learned it on my own,” he said, and gave some guidelines for new chart-scratchers. “Just listen to records, and write down what you think each section is: this is the intro, here’s the verse, the pre-chorus or what they sometimes call the release, the section after the chorus — just make your own vocabulary, and then count measures. Just keep it basic in that regard.”

Pelton says, “Everybody comes up with their own language, their own shorthand, but it’s about coming to grips with the ability to learn stuff fast because it will save the day.”

With experience on their side, Pelton and Aronoff, like all great players, can adapt to the amount of information needed (or allowed) for the job at hand. One example is the “human drum machine” scenario. “Some artists,” Pelton says, “want to hear the same thing every time, every take, and they appreciate the ability to give them what they want more than one time in a row.”

“Some artists will play you a demo of their tune first, and nowadays people can make some really ’fleshed-out’ demos. So maybe they just want a live drummer to cop what they’ve programmed. Some artists have ’severe demo love’ and they’re not interested in what you have to bring to the table, so the ability to transcribe exactly what they’ve programmed can save the day, as opposed to doing take after take and hoping you’re going to land on something they like.”

Another example is the “no notes allowed” scenario, where paper is seen as too sterile and too darned organized for real rock and roll. “Some artists,” Pelton says, “see you with notes and charts and they feel like they’re in math class, feel like it’s the furthest thing from rock and roll.” So what do you do if notes are verboten? We can imagine him smiling into the phone. “I might write a note on the snare drum, saying ’the bridge is only six bars long.’ There’s different ways you can have crib notes. There’s been times when I’ve done TV shows and you don’t get a lot of rehearsal and don’t have a lot of time to memorize the stuff. I’ll paste a notebook card on the bass drum so that at least if I have to remember something tricky, form-wise, it’s down there.”

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So you’ve cribbed your notes, saved the day, and the session or gig is over. Now toss the notes. Or not? These cats save their notes. Says Pelton, “From doing so many sessions and not being in one working band, my memorization is not so … well, it’s different. Here in New York, a freelancer might be in 15 different bands, and a band might do a showcase and then not play again for three or four months, then do another showcase. So I definitely keep my notes. I have all these folders of stuff I’ve done, so when it’s time to play with that band again I can get my notes and check it out.”

Aronoff also keeps files. “I don’t know why I did it, but I’m glad I did it,” he says. “From the late ’80s all the way through now, I’ve got charts from every session. I’ve got every tour: Smashing Pumpkins, Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, three Melissa Etheridges, The Bodeans, Michelle Branch. On the chart I write down what drums, what cymbals, what drumheads I used. One time I did a song that went to number one, ’I’ll Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That,’ for Meat Loaf. We recorded ten minutes of music for that song. It was ridiculous! How’s that ever going to make it on the radio? [laughs]. So they call me months later and say, ’Hey, we want you to add more to that track. Do you know what you played?’ I went to the file cabinet: pulled out the chart with what I played, everything down to the beater on the bass drum pedal; it was really helpful.”

Aronoff’s Chart


Aronoff’s shorthand method is very cool. He has minimized the size of the chart without losing any important info. Steal this method.

At the top of Alanis Morissette’s “Eight Easy Steps” from the CD “So-Called Chaos,” we see four, then eight, then seven bars of rest, so we know the drums are out for a while. But with the chart, we know exactly where we are. Then the big fill and into the chorus beat. Aronoff numbered the verses and the choruses, and put a “B” for bridge. Since many bars in a song repeat, he writes the beat or rest and then, under the bar, he writes out the number of times to repeat it. This is an abbreviation of writing out, say, a one-bar beat four times, and it’s also shorter than the common method of writing repeat marks for four bars. On this chart he doesn’t write out the hi-hat patterns, just the kick and snare. Fills, like he said, are marked with an arrow or written out according to need.

Aronoff uses some traditional notation methods in addition to writing the rhythms. He’s written, for example, fp for forte piano (start the phrase hard and immediately go soft). But he also uses plain English (crash/ride) and mnemonic devices (Keith Moon). Also note the “tenudo” markings over the last two eighth-notes of line one, a bit of notation more often seen in a classical music setting. Aronoff is deeply trained and sometimes his huge knowledge peeks out from behind his rock-and-roll demeanor. The bottom line is, he can write it formally or informally, and he’s developed a tremendously compact method by melding all different schools. It’s all here, ready to play, each beat and each fill. Just add taste, muscle, and finesse. He makes it sound so easy!