Music theory is a way of describing the things in music that different people, in different cultural contexts have found to sound good to them. We believe that music doesn’t flow from theory – theory flows from music.
From traditional and folk styles of music right up to the contemporary — none have ever required theory. Notation does not necessitate beautiful music creation (and nor does it prevent you from learning to play the popular music you love) — but it can still facilitate it in certain circumstances if needed.
So why was sheet music a thing?
Before recorded music or digital technologies, sheet music was a standardised way to precisely describe, and communicate complex musical ideas from a composer’s mind, to the musicians who would be able to play it exactly as it was imagined. Without notation, the world’s most acclaimed classical composers — Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and everyone else — would have had no voice, and their music would have died with them.
Notation in a way, was the precursor to recorded music as we know it. Common use of sheet notation in the music industry progressed into 20th century pop with famous session bands like the Wrecking Crew smash out hit-after-Motown-hit; being able to rapidly learn several new songs every session and execute a top of the pops hit on the spot with minimal practice. This made fluency in site-reading notation a real skill to have.
When isn’t sheet music really needed in contemporary times?
For every Wrecking Crew session muso in 1960s , there are thousands more musicians around the world making music without ever needing to read the stave. Elton John himself learned by ear first, long before he ever went on to study theory. Legends like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Prince and even Dave Brubeck never learned how to read music at all. From Vanessa Carlton’s “Thousand Miles”, Outkast’s “Roses”, Alicia Keys “Fallin’” to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” — it would be unreal to think they were composed and learned with sheet notation.
You might need to read music if you ever think you’ll be doing a “reading gig” — that is if you need to play music exactly as it has been composed, where it is too complex or lengthy to memorise. This is of course ever-present in Classical, and also in some Jazz, Musical Theatre and Cinema settings.
Although understanding the background principles of how to read music is fairly straightforward — It’s a lot of work to be able to read music fluently and at a professional level. For many, the hard slog to get the degree of fluency required for this might put you off, but many musicians are instead adept at being able to figure out, and play by ear, and confident enough to add impromptu creative flair when playing and recording.
Do you need to read music? No. But you might wish to really be fluent site reading in some particular instances. It depends what your musical goals are, but it’s important to remember that one of the reasons most people don’t succeed with an instrument is because they don’t practice – not their grasp of theory!
You can absolutely learn theory by playing – and it will make so much more sense when you learn it from a real-life playing context, rather than it being a key that unlocks certain music for you. When an audience is listening, they can’t tell your site-reading ability, but they can hear your skill and confidence – so get out there, have fun and play!
Instead of being limited to step sequencing or programming, the accomplished finger drummer unlocks the full range and expression available to musicians. The result is creative possibility shifting back into the producer’s hands.
Pads are such a unique and diverse instrument it can be overwhelming, and hard to know where to begin. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way!
First and foremost, let’s master the basics.
The 3 Universal Components of Finger Drumming
With MIDI pads, there are always three distinct components which all interact and amount to how you can play. Consider these when approaching your practice and performance on pads:
Component #1: Your controller’s layout (aka The Foundation)
Your layout is the physical arrangement of the pads and the selected samples assigned to each. The layout chosen will define the style of your performance.
The examples in this article will use a 4 x 4 pad, but there is a multitude of other pad arrangements available too. You can find smaller ones, such as 4 x 2 or even much larger arrangements as big as 8 x 8.
Component #2: The track’s rhythm (aka The Method)
The rhythmic information informs how to interact with your pads layout, in order to perform the desired sequence of beats and samples.
Further on in this article, we’ll run through some examples on how a 4 x 4 arrangement can have different samples assigned to the pads, depending on what you want to rhythmically play in a song.
Component #3: Your coordination (aka The Delivery)
This is the dexterous use of one’s hands and fingers and how they physically play the rhythm onto a layout.
This will determine if it will be best to use your right or left hand, as well as finger allocation for any given beat. It’s especially important to consider you coordination when you start incorporating multiple samples/using more pads in your performance.
The most important thing with coordination is to plan ahead. Your positioning may change depending on the pad layout so work out which pads you need throughout a song, and position yourself comfortably so that each pad is easily within reach.
Let’s explore the interrelationship between these three core components to see how more complex layouts can unlock more rhythmical possibilities for you, but may also require more advanced coordination techniques and dexterity.
If we show you an example of how to play the same song five different ways, you might better understand how you could too can approach learning to play pads, and increase your skill and coordination along the way.
This first performance shows all of the three finger drumming components presented in their most basic form: There is one sample (i.e. the whole track), so the layout assigned this to just one pad, played on the first beat with one finger.
Making it a little more complicated — we’ve chopped the first performance track into four.
The layout assigns four samples, over four different pads, with each sample being played over a half note. In terms of coordination, this layout and rhythm is simple enough that as few as one index finger can still play all the samples in succession.
Let’s increase the complexity of the coordination, and bring in some more fingers to play the drum groove over a backing! We’ve separated the kick and the snare rhythm for the groove, from the melody/bassline/hi-hats backing. One pad triggers that melody/bassline/hi-hats backing track; and one pad is assigned each for kick and snare samples.
As the backing track plays the full duration, the separately played kick and snare drums need to do the job of keeping the percussive rhythm in time with the hi-hat subdivisions. Index fingers on alternating hands play the kick and snare pattern; with the backing track being triggered by the middle finger on the first beat (along with the kick), and playing the full length of the track.
Separating the backing from the beat components lets you focus on and experiment with variations on the beat. Having a more complex layout (assigning more samples to different pads, for instance with additional drum samples) gives you more options rhythmically, but by the same virtue requires you to be more confident with keeping time. This third performance further illustrates this flexibility, by showing a slightly different drum beat than the first and second performances.
We’ve now broken out the full drum kit (kick, snare and the hi-hat) to their own assigned pads; and chopped the baseline + melody backing into four additional samples (assigned to four different pads to trigger).
This means that we have to trigger the backing track samples every second beat; whilst also playing every component of the drum beat. Note from the video how the finger used to trigger the kick starts with the thumb, but plays the last three beats instead with the middle finger.
This performance shows you that chopping the backing tracks differently whilst still playing the drum beats on time can lend a syncopated air if done right.
This is the most complex performance layout chosen for this exercise – although unlike the fourth performance, we will only be using the index and middle fingers of each hand, with no switching fingers for different beats.
We’ve broken out the kick, snare and hi-hats for the drum beats; and similarly separated the backing track’s melody from its bass track, in three different samples.
Each pad sample needs to be triggered on different beats in the measure, with different frequency depending on the sample – Note how the layout helps with this, by focusing on playing ergonomics for both the left and right hands.
The interplay between the melody backing, and bassline creates a new challenge to play in conjunction with a separate drum groove. Nevertheless, the degree of coordination required to play the rhythm does allow you far greater rhythmic and melodic freedom in your performance – once your skill-level is there.
This layout approach would be ideal for exploring sample chopping, and mix-matching different backing sections to compose new tracks with in the future as you get more confident in your playing ability.
These performances show you five different ways to perform the same song live, using a different layout for each. Each performance gradually increases from fundamental to a more complex layout, with the rhythm and coordination skill required becoming more advanced.
When you’re approaching finger drumming, samples and layouts, consider how much rhythmical freedom you require in your performance, and your confidence in layout-making and coordination. You can adapt any or all of these three areas accordingly in your own playing, or use Melodics step-by-step structure and multi-difficulty lessons to gradually increase this complexity for you.
By splitting the backing track(s) out from the percussion tracks, you can see that there is more rhythmical freedom for your playing.
Putting backing tracks to one side, if you would like to focus on upskilling your drum groove playing, we highly recommend you start with the Melodics’ course on Mirrored Layout for pads.
This will help you master the art of finger drumming, and you will be much more confident to explore the advanced world of playing with backings, sample chopping, and layout-making.