Music Theory For Drummers: Pitch, Please! (Part I)
Ancient Drummer Joke:
Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?
A: A drummer.
Perhaps you’ve heard this tired gem before, possibly uttered by some drunk barfly who thinks he’s just one-upped you with his sharpened wit of regurgitated jokes. Though it may sting to hear such quips from toothless Joe at the old dive, there’s sadly some truth to the punch line. Allow me to break down this sigh-worthy joke and ruin all chances of it ever being funny again.
Every musician works with rhythm. Maybe not as extensively as drummers do, but piano players, bass players, even singers, all have to carry and follow rhythmic structures. These musicians also work with melody and harmony. On the other hand, drummers tend to be quite one-sided, only knowing rhythm, and never exploring the melodic world. Many begrudgingly neglect to learn melody and harmony their entire musical lives.
So to label a drummer as a non-musician simply because they don’t understand the fundamentals of melody and harmony is a bit harsh, but there’s some truth to the fact that drummers just don’t understand the majroity of the DNA that weaves together a song. Yes, that’s right, the majority of what constitutes a song is the melody, harmony, and the lyrics; not the drums. The drums are obviously crucial, but take away everything else and all you have is a drum track, not a song (with some rare exceptions, of course). Take away only the drums and you still have a recognizable tune. Still don’t believe it? Just ask the Supreme Court.
There are, of course, some exceptions to the “non-musician” drummer punch line. Some drummers go the extra mile, learn a pitch-based instrument, and start contributing more than just beats to the music. Dave Grohl, Stewart Copeland, Phil Collins, Kenwood Dennard, and Gary Husband are just a few stellar examples of those curve breakers.
Hopefully the razzing of that old drummer joke and the all-star cast of overachiever drummers is enough motivation to start educating yourself beyond the kit. So join me in embarking upon a journey that will not only lead you to writing your own songs, but more importantly, one in which you can finally tell your guitar player he’s playing the wrong notes. Priceless.
A note to high school drummers: If you have aspirations to study music in college, start learning music theory now. Any four-year college with a music major program will be cramming theory down your face-hole, and all of the other students will have a huge upper hand because they have years of prior experience with pitch. Learn it now, or you’ll be studying twice as hard as everybody else come exam time.
Ignorance = Fear
When some musicians hear the term “music theory,” they tend to get a little squeamish, thinking that learning the mechanics will somehow neuter one’s natural creativity. That’s just silly. Theory is merely the language of how the system works. These are the nuts and bolts of what makes songs sound certain ways. Additionally, fully embracing all theory can greatly aid in classical composition, teaching, and arranging for horns and strings.
Before getting knee deep in the theory swamp, it’s critical to have access to an instrument that plays definite pitches. An acoustic piano is best, and a drum kit just won’t do, as it’s an instrument of indefinite pitches. Guitars and basses are okay, but most all music theory is constructed off of the keyboard layout, and following suit, it makes most sense to learn with a keyboard in front of you. Try to avoid working with instruments like organs and synths, as they have additional harmonics that can easily throw off ear training. With all of the free pianos (three cheers for the free section on craigslist!), cheap midi controllers, and free apps out there, there’s no excuse not to have some type of piano to work with.
To begin, let’s just get acquainted with the notes on the keyboard as illustrated in Ex. 1. While the names of the white keys are pretty much fixed, the enharmonic spelling of the black keys is interchangeable, depending on a few situations. For now, just know that A# (A-sharp) is the exact same note as Bb (B-flat). Similarly, Eb is the same as D#, and so on.Now let’s take a look at how these notes look on paper. Below is a treble clef with middle C, the center note of a piano, as the starting pitch. To notate any sharp or flat notes, simply add a # or b (respectively) right before the note. These symbols are called accidentals.
To further aid with reading basic notes, many folks find it easier to memorize them by separating the notes based on those that fall in the spaces and those that fall on the lines. More importantly, however, are the fun mnemonic devices you can make out of them. Remember, the more curse words, the easier to memorize….
Half Steps and Whole Steps
Much like inches on a ruler, basic music theory can be broken down into the units of measurement known as whole steps and half steps. The half step, also known as a semitone, is the distance between each neighboring note. For instance, C to C# is a half step, as is C# to D. Two half steps equal a whole step, so the distance from C to D is a whole step. The distance from F to A is two whole steps or four half steps. The distance from D# to Bb is seven half steps. Count them out on the keyboard.