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

music theory

Scales — The Foundation Of Songs

A scale, or key, is a group of specific notes. There are major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, and many more fun groupings of notes to play with. Most pieces tend to stay within one or two keys (many classical pieces even include an informative title with the key, like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor), and all scales can be broken down into the measurements of whole steps and half steps.

Major Scales

A major scale has the following formula of steps: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. So starting on C, a major scale would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. That’s all the white keys, actually: quite convenient, but hardly the case for most any other major scale. For instance, a major scale starting on G, would yield the following notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Try building a major scale off of D, and you should wind up with two sharps. Check your results with the diagram below. Each scale, regardless of its starting pitch, should hold a similar pleasant sound.

music theory

Minor Scales

Minor keys have a slightly different series of steps and there are three basic types of minor scales: natural, harmonic and melodic. For now, we’ll stick with the natural form, which has the following sequence of steps: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. Starting from A, a natural minor scale would be A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. To form an E natural minor scale, you should have the notes E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E. Try them out on the keyboard and check your work with the figure below. Also note the sound quality of the minor scale and how it sounds “darker” than a major scale.

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Scale Breakdowns: Whole Steps and Half Steps

Major: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half
Natural Minor: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole

Eventually, your goal should be comfortably knowing most major and minor scales, and having the facility to build them off of any starting note. This is a big undertaking, so for now try building and playing the following scales:

D Major (hint: 2 sharps)
A Major (hint: 3 sharps)
E Major
E Minor (hint: 1 sharp)
B Minor (hint: 2 sharps)

Also take note of the difference between major and minor scales. They sound completely dissimilar and this is primarily because of the 3rd scale degree. For instance, in the key of C major, the third scale degree is an E. In C minor, that E goes down a half step to Eb, and this drastically changes the “attitude” of the sound. Additionally, the 7th scale degree also greatly influences the mood of a key. In the example below, note the differences between major and minor scales both starting on C.

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Relative Minor

Every major scale has a relative minor, which is a minor scale with all of the same notes as the major scale. Although both scales contain the same notes, they each have different starting pitches, and therefore end up having completely different step patterns and sounds. The relative minor is always three half steps down from the root of the major scale, which means the relative minor of C major is A minor, the relative minor of F major is D minor, and so forth. As an example, check out the following relative major and minor scales:

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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.

music theory

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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Intervals

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.

Strategy

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.