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.
Where do you start? Where do you go next? What do you do when things get tricky? What should you be focusing on?
These are common questions we hear from those looking to get started – and we felt the same thing when we were beginners. Because sometimes, it’s just nice to have a little guidance!
Say hello to Melodics’ Guided Path.
The Guided Path is your introduction to the critical skills needed to play drums, keys, or pads confidently.
Here you’ll find a map through a curated selection of Melodics Courses – specifically designed to help you find your way to improve your skills from the ground up on your chosen instrument..
Don’t worry about having any prior experience or theoretical knowledge: The Guided Path starts you off with playing music at your level, and growing your ability right from the beginning!
If you’re new to learning and unsure if you’re ready to dive into the vast array of Lessons and Courses available in Melodics: then working your way through each Course in the Guided Path will make sure you stay focused, and lay down the rock-solid foundation you need first to continue building upon and explore throughout your musical life.
What does the Guided Path look like?
Starting with fundamental musical building blocks, then expanding and branching into more specific concepts and skills – the Guided Path grows with you as your ability and interests progress.
What do you want to learn? Take your pick of drums, keys, or pads – there is a dedicated Guided Path for each of them. In total, there are more than 60 courses and over 250 lessons as part of the Guided Paths that are there to guide you every step of the way.
The Guided Path for Drums.
The Guided Path for Drums is based around developing a comprehensive understanding of the basic drum grooves and applying rudiments. From there, you’ll develop the skills to create your own grooves, and beyond.
Once you’ve developed a solid foundation, you’ll explore courses on coordination, building limb independence, exciting fills, linear playing, and time signatures which will prime you for confidently stepping out into the world of more advanced drumming.
The Melodics Guided Path for Drums will support you when you are stuck, providing a way to trace back to the fundamental skills you might have missed, allowing you to learn and develop the skills that matter, faster. – Benjamin Locke, Creative Production & Content Creator
The Guided Path for Keys.
The Melodics Guided Path for Keys is a modern curriculum for anyone keen to learn the keyboard – focusing on both practical and theoretical concepts through Melodics’ play-to-learn methodology.
Feel free to start off with the basics, like orienting your left and right hands, rhythm and time signatures, note lengths and note interval basics. From there, you can get introduced to playing melodies, triads, chord inversions, 7th chords, common chord progressions, rhythmic syncopation, arpeggios, and basslines – all the building blocks of modern music!
Higher and lower-level concepts are always present in music – The journey of music is non-linear and all about making connections between things. The more connections you make, the more you start to recognise certain features, almost as though they weren’t there before. – Robert Bruce, Creative Production & Content Creator
With an emphasis on a wide range of contemporary genres like Hip-Hop, Pop, RnB and Electronic, completing the Guided Path is guaranteed fun and accessible for everyone.
The Guided Path for Pads.
The Melodics Guided Path for Pads is the first interactive music-learning program designed specifically for Pads as an instrument. It’s important for anyone who wants help building and strengthening their finger drumming skill-set.
The pads Guided Path starts you off with exploring your instrument from a rhythmic perspective: coordination, orientation, counting beats, and seeing beat subdivisions. You’ll hone in on how to think and play pads like a drummer does drums using the Mirror Layout, build upon the classic Backbeat, into creating drum grooves and develop a syncopated swung-feel in your playing style.
By playing through the Guided Path you will exercise core skills in multiple musical contexts. Through this, you will gain adaptability and versatility in your playing. Adapting your style and problem solving helps you connect your physical skills with your conscious understanding of what you are trying to do. This will help you become a better finger drummer and musician. – Ruby Walsh, Creative Production & Content Strategy
You’ll have built a solid foundation to progress into where pads as an instrument really shines: the exciting world of live beat techniques, and incorporating instrumental and scale sounds into your playing repertoire – whether that’s in the bedroom, with a band, the studio or the stage.
The Guided Path has evolved! What’s new?
We’ve given our Guided Path a huge boost. Along with introducing new, revamped courses by our expert music team, we’ve combined two essential Melodics features to give you the ultimate learning experience: Guided Path and Records.
Guided Path: meet Records.
We see the Guided Path as an incredibly valuable learning environment for those new to an instrument.
Where the Guided Path helps you build up a solid foundation of critical skills you might need to confidently explore music – Records provide video explanations of those concepts and ideas, which summarise and keep track of everything you’ve just learned.
Combining these two is the perfect marriage! Incorporating Records helps to better reinforce the benefits of the Guided Path, offering an all-in-one, synergetic place to learn, explore and measure your mastery of fundamental musical skills as you progress.
We’ve re-assigned Records so that they are solely found and collected in corresponding lessons throughout the Guided Path, to really support the topic you’re learning at that time. When you want to review or revisit Records all in one place, just head to your Progress section in Melodics.
A sample flip is a production technique beatmakers use to create an instrumental or a backing track for a vocalist. Whether you’re working on a hip-hop, house, techno or RnB track, there are various approaches to flipping a sample. Some of them are universal, and some of them are genre-specific. We are going to focus on a traditional hip-hop sample flipping technique, which you can apply to any composition style you want.
This technique is sample chopping, or ‘chop the sample’. First, we have to find a sample. For this example, we are going to use one sample source, a stereo audio file. The sample we have chosen is from ‘Reflections’ by Albert Jones. We used Tracklib to source the sample: an online record store where anyone can clear samples affordably and fast. Released in 1973, ‘Reflections’ is a soul/RnB track. It has big drum fills, gritty organ, amazing backing vocals and some beautiful melodic information that I want to showcase in the beat.
You can access it for free using this link or if you are already a Tracklib user, head directly here.
There are many ways you can chop or cut a sample. You can chop random events from the song, cut bigger chunks like a 2 bar loop, or layer events from other parts of the song over the 2 bar loop. The limit here is your imagination. We are going to chop the sample by even 1/4 notes. To find the 1/4 notes, count along to the song, the 1/4 notes are the 1,2,3,4 count of each bar. The snare drum lands on the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar.
Bigger chops, like a 2 bar loop, keep the feel of the song intact in the sample. When you chop the sample shorter, 1/8th or 1/16th notes, the feel becomes more muted. However, you can use those shorter chops to push and pull against the rhythm of the sampled song, and create your own feel.
Begin by giving the song you’re sampling from a close listen. Keeping your eyes closed may be helpful, as you’re trying to get as deep inside the track as possible to find out which parts stand out. Look for a section that speaks to you, and reminds you of the goosebumps feeling that always draws you back to music.
During the early years of hip-hop, DJs focused on playing breakbeats from records for the dancefloor. The breakbeats in songs were what excited the crowd and made them get down to the music. Correctly looping and chopping beats is the foundation of sample chopping. It is your duty as a beatmaker to convey the excitement, emotion and feeling you hear to the listener. Sometimes the goosebump moment comes from something unexpected in the music. It could be a crack in an emotional vocal, an out of tune bass note, atmospheric reverb, an overly keen saxophone phrase, or a breath.
The first thing which stands out as chop-worthy on ‘Reflections’ is it’s very emotive intro-section. A quick online search reveals that the sample has already been used by Mary J. Blige (through Tracklib). However, you can quickly turn the disappointment of a previously used sample into a competitive drive. The challenge becomes flipping the sample in a new direction. Let’s take the intro and chop it into 1/4 notes.
I’ve used Ableton Live’s sampler instrument to chop the sample manually, in real-time. That way, as I play the pads sequentially on my computer, every hit of a pad will create a new slice. As I am chopping, I am also listening out of any pads that grab my attention. In Live, if you hear something you are vibing, you can start looping it in then and there.
Now it’s time to look beyond the intro.
The first verse has some great vocal moments. The bass is hot and a little bit out of tune, the guitar is similar but sonically perfect (gritty, dry, beautiful mid-range), and the drums have great mid-range in the kick, a nice dry snare, and 16th note hi-hats. All of these elements will work in the beat, so let’s chop the first verse into 1/4 notes.
The first note of the chorus is magical. Something is calling out in it. Is it the bass performance, the background vocals, or the air in the beat? Perhaps it’s the vibraphone reminding me of a Dilla beat? It’s still a mystery as to whether we’ll use it in the final beat, but let’s try to remember that feeling when we make decisions about what to chop. We’ll cut the chorus into 1/4 notes.
Once you’ve chopped your sample, it pays to zoom in on each chop. You do this to make sure they’re cut as close to 1/4 notes as they can be. If you want, you can leave the chops loose with time before or after the cut, but the tighter you chop to the original 1/4 note tempo, the more control you’ll have when you play them back. You can adjust the start and endpoints of the chops by your ears or eye. Trimming by ear is closer to the experience you’d have using classic machines such as the SP1200, ASR 10 or MPC3000 sampler, as none of them had a waveform display. When you trim by ear, there is more chance of a happy accident, and the chop might “feel” nicer in the beat. Trimming by eye will give you a tighter, more quantized chop.
Laying the groundwork, introducing the beat.
On our 8×8 Push controller, we now have 64 chops to use for our beat. A simple approach would be to play back a row of pads, 4 or 8 pads sequentially. The intro to the original song is perfect for this. This progression is a |I / / / |ii / / / |iii / / / |ii / / / | progression, a fairly common progression in soul/R’n’B. The ii and the iii chords are minor chords, so they build tension and suspense really well. Let’s loop up one bar, the iii chord. This is going to be our intro.
This loop feels so good it could be our main loop for the song. Still, we want to go deeper, not just do the obvious, and showcase some chopping skills. This section is our intro setup, where we play the loop out so the listener can catch the vibe of the original song. The chop here 1/4 notes makes for this sequence | hit | hi-hat | piano | hi-hat |. Chopping the iii chord section is good because the vocal sounds like it is circling back on itself, which creates the illusion of an infinite loop. Speeding up the chop also makes the flow/rhythm of the sample change subtly, adding a nice swing.
Rearranging the puzzle pieces, finding the main loop.
If you play across all the pads, you’ll be surprised by what jumps out as potentially usable for the main loop. Start by playing the pads as ¼ notes, and letting the sample play out between hits. After that, try different combos of pads.
When a beat is chopped up evenly, you can find some really cool patterns. Try 4 pads sequentially [1,2,3,4], 4 pads reversed [4,3,2,1], 4 pads flipped [1,4,3,2], and 4 pads diagonally [A1,B2,C3,D4]. Then, try 8th notes. In this instance, this doesn’t work so well with 1/4 note chops, but it works really well with the intro chops.
This part of the process can feel like musical Tetris. A random order of pads leads me to this pattern.
The minor chords create suspense, and the chops of the vocals and organ generate tension. I took notes on where the drum fills were on the pads, so I am going to use them to expand the loop from 1 bar to 2 or 4 bars with fills. As luck would have it, we already have some good drum fills within our existing chops.
Bring in the drums
Now we have our main loop ready; we can dig for some one-shot drum samples to overlay on top of it. I selected my drum samples from STLNDRMS – All Of The Drums. The kick I’ve chosen has a good mid-range punch and a sub-note on it. The snare is crunchy, with aggressive mid-range distortion, and the hi-hats are very clean. I also selected a handclap to layer on the snare for extra snap.
I want my drums to have a little swing/rub. To give them this, I push and pull on every second hi-hat. It’s subtle, but it creates a cool feeling.
Bring In The Bass
I have chosen an 808 drum machine kick for my bass and mapped across the Push in the standard chromatic layout. I added saturation to it to bring out the upper harmonics in the sample. This helps us hear the pitch of the note. It also makes it audible on smaller speakers. The bassline outlines the harmonic chord progression and works alongside the kick drum pattern.
Bring in the piano
I wanted to add one more live element to the beat, so I decided on piano. This gives the sample a strong chordal structure, and it’s good to have one consistent chordal instrument happening in the song that will mesh all the sample chops together. The chord is a Dmin7 then up a tone to Emin7. I used the Arturia Piano V and went for a dry, studio sounding piano. I tracked the left and right-hand parts separately as I can’t fit a 3-octave range on the Push at the same time.
As I track the intro, verse buildup and verse, I have to automate the tempo so that the slower intro samples fit nicely. The increase in tempo gives the beat some organic movement, which an instrumental locked to one speed wouldn’t achieve. I also filtered the sample in the verses to give the drums and bass some breathing space, just in case this beat ends up being sent to a vocalist.
Create A Live Performance Layout
To create a live performance layout, I have bounced out the original sample layered with the bass and the piano. It was going to be physically impossible to play all the parts simultaneously. This lets me play the sample chops with my left hand and the drums with my right hand. After workshopping different options and layouts, I have come up with a strong layout, and colour coded it so I can remember where the sections and samples are.
I have kept the sample chops to the same length as in my original beat because I like the way it feels when I manually play them. It also means I can get a bit of that rub feel happening, by stretching the time between the samples and the drums.
I bounced all the samples out of my original session and re-organised them in a new drum rack. Bouncing them out of the original session with all the track EQ and master buss plugins on them means that my live performance layout will sound mixed and consistent over any PA speakers.
Get even more:
Access the sample for free from Tracklib – click here
Try out the Melodics lessons that feature this content – click here
Hi there! I’m Spinscott, and I am a lifelong drummer, DJ, and music fanatic that has been obsessed with Jungle & Drum n Bass (DnB) music for over 20 years. During this time, I’ve always thought of DnB as a “Producers Genre”. What I mean by this phrase is that while every style of music involves levels of creativity and updates/changes to the sound, DnB just seems to evolve and push limits at an accelerated rate. In my opinion, it would be challenging to identify another genre of music that has more sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, spinoffs, clones, and variations to its sound while simultaneously retaining a listener base for just about all of its prior forms. Even with the common appearance of elements such as classic breaks like Amens (nod to my favorite genre, JUNGLE!), Think, Apache, bass (808, Reese, reverse, etc), and wonderfully recycled pads & vocal clips…, there is always an inherent drive to push limits and experiment with new applications of rhythm and sound.
In addition to the music itself, many forms of DnB are about creating and manipulating energy for the listeners and people’s moves on the dance floor. Relying on much more than just a “drop”, many producers strive to maintain a flow of energy and impact at the track level, and throughout an entire set or performance. Certainly these elements exist in other DJ related music genres, but they are quite prominent in DnB. As a “producer’s genre”, there is often a competitive and perfectionist nature that comes with making the music, with intense focus on not just the finished product, but on precision of rhythms, varying dominance in the mix, high sound quality and fidelity (sometimes lo-fi is preferred of course!), and endless new ways of using samples and new or classic effects.
While there are countless rhythms utilized in the production of DnB , with new ones evolving and emerging constantly, there are certain primary rhythms that lay a foundation for the genre as a whole. To be clear, I’m speaking of the rhythms themselves, not the sounds, because in production there is an unlimited array of drum sounds that can be substituted or layered into the same rhythms. Bringing things back to a fundamental level, I’ve broken down three essential rhythm variations into steps that will enable people to play them live as real-time performances, while learning how to differentiate between the beats. The nature of these beats originates from the methodology of splitting up a break phrase and using various start points, as has traditionally been done using sequences or partial sequences. As a drummer, I’ve always programmed the sampler using single notes, or “one shots”, and play them like one would play bongos or other hand drums. This enables real-time variations and freestyling that breaks the boundaries of using pre-defined sequences of notes.
The DnB Quads course that I have created with Melodics, focuses on three rhythms (or beats) containing Kick+Snare+Hat+Bass sounds. These beats likely have a variety of names in the industry, but I have always referred to them as “The Forward“, “The Step Back“, and “The Stomper“, so those are the names I’ve chosen to accompany the DnB Quads lessons.
Utilizing 16 pads on the standard sampler/drum machine layout split into four quadrants, the beats are played sequentially through each quadrant, with bar one in Quad 1, bar two in Quad 2, and so forth, repeating the cycle. One of the reasons I constructed the lessons in this manner is so that the player can concentrate on the rhythm, while the base notes change during each run.
Rhythm and timing are arguably the most important elements of music! Listeners will often put up with spotty-tonality (Bob Dylan’s raspy-nasal out of tune voice “adds character” to his music), but it’s pretty rare for listeners to enjoy music that is performed in a sloppily-out-of-time-and-out-of-control kind of way.
A fairly simplistic and broad description of music that I like is “organized sound.” And I also like to describe “rhythm” as events happening in time (sonic events if we’re talking about music, like we are today!). Counting (one way or another) is really the only way I know of to help you keep track of time and understand rhythm.
How to Count?
Out loud! Yes, it can be embarrassing to add your voice to music you are working on, but it’s so important because it will help you internalize the rhythms you are practicing and play the music more precisely and confidently in the future. Eventually, you won’t have to count out loud every time you learn new music, but many musicians I know (myself included) count out loud when they are practicing particularly difficult rhythms.
A former drum teacher of mine used to say: “Some people have perfect pitch. Nobody has perfect time.” It’s true, some people can tune a guitar completely by ear, and name every single note in a chord, but – while some people have better natural timing than others – timing is something that musicians can continually improve throughout their lives.
The drum set (aka the drum kit or trap set) as we know it came to be in the United States in the early 1900s for vaudeville shows. The fact that the trap set could be played with all four limbs made it extremely popular and it rapidly became a fixture in American music and spread to popular music from all over the world.
The drum kit’s United States’ origins is why drum sizes (diameter of the heads and cymbals, and depth of the shells) are listed in inches even though most countries don’t use American units of measurement.
A basic drum set is a collection of percussive instruments: typically a snare drum, one or two rack toms, a floor tom, kick drum, hi-hat, and a cymbal or two. Unlike many instruments, the drum set can fill out the entire range of human hearing, from the deepest lows to the highest highs.
The snare drum sits squarely in the middle of the standard drum set. Its diameter is typically 14 inches, and it is often around six inches deep (shallower than the other drums). The top head (or skin) of the drum is called the batter head (it’s the one you hit!) and the bottom head is called the resonant head (the sound reverberates off of it!) – this is true of all drums in the kit. But what gives the snare it’s signature sound is a group of metal wires called “snares” stretched across the resonant head of the drum. These snare wires can be tightened, loosened, or bypassed completely to change the sound of the drum with the “snare strainer” or “thrower,” which is a mechanical device on the side of the drum that holds the snares in place.
The snare sound occupies the middle frequency range of the drum set and often functions the same as a clap (generally people clap along with snare drum part of a groove).
The snare drum developed as a means to communicate military commands across a battlefield and while marching – so they were designed to have a sound that cuts through a noisy atmosphere and across long distances. Because this function also works perfectly for cutting through a mix of instruments, the snare has been repurposed into all kinds of modern music, and often provides the backbeat (clap-along part).
Dylan Wissing demonstrates classic snare drums from throughout the last 100 years.
The kick drum (aka bass drum) is the lowest sounding drum of the kit and is also the lowest positioned drum. It sits on the floor in front of you and is played with your right foot (on a righty-drum set). A mallet attached to a pedal strikes the batter head of the drum. The diameter of the drum is around 20 inches and the depth ranges from around 14 to 20 inches. The kick sound provides a low thump that people can tap their feet to. In many grooves the kick drum locks in with the bass guitar or bass synth, accenting the important notes that they play.
The late great John Blackwell’s legendary bass drum techniques.
It is often up to you as to how many toms you want in your kit. A standard pop drum kit has at least one rack tom and a floor tom, however it’s not uncommon to have more of both. The rack toms are often mounted on top of the kick drum, but sometimes they are mounted on cymbal stands or placed on stands of their own. On kits that only have one rack tom, it is normally positioned above and behind the snare drum so that you can easily hit it with both sticks. Rack toms are generally 12 or 13 inches in diameter and at least 6 inches deep.
The floor tom has leg attachments so that it sits on the floor to your right. It’s normally 14 to 16 inches in diameter and about 14 inches deep.
The toms are used in heavier grooves and fills because they have a deep sound, occupying the low to high mid-range.
Phill Collins’ epic Tom Fill in “In the Air Tonight”
The hi-hat is a fascinating instrument with a huge range of sound.. It is two small cymbals (often 14 inches each) mounted on a stand with a pedal that allows you to control the top cymbal with your left foot. You can smack the top cymbal into the bottom cymbal in a variety of ways to produce a range of sounds: from splashy to crisp. And then you can also play it with your stick, tightening the hats with more or less pressure on the pedal for different articulations.
The hi-hat is positioned to the left of the snare drum (often close enough so that it floats over the left half of the snare drum). Its sonic range occupies the high frequencies of the kit and is frequently used to “keep time,” (that means play a steady pattern).
Bernard Purdie demonstrating a tight hi-hat groove with some open hi-hats thrown in.
A standard drum set usually has a ride cymbal and/or crash cymbal. Both the crash and ride cymbals are similar in size (around 20 inches in diameter), but the ride cymbal is thicker and designed to have a nice “ping” sound when struck with the tip of the stick. Like the hi-hat, the ride cymbal is often used to keep time. This is where the ride cymbal gets its name: you “ride” on it to keep time.
The crash cymbal is most often used for a special kind of accent called a “crash.” You crash a cymbal by striking it on its edge with the shoulder of your stick, often hard. The crash cymbal is designed with crashing in mind, and typically has a rich and heavy attack with a high-frequency, long shimmery decay.
You can crash a ride cymbal and ride a crash cymbal, but a heavy ride cymbal has a slower attack and more wobbly decay when crashed, and a light crash cymbal has a more washy, less articulate attack when struck with the stick tip like a ride. There is a cymbal type called Crash-Ride, which is on the spectrum in between the two cymbal types.
The crash cymbal is typically suspended on a stand above the left side of the kit, hovering above the rack tom, or above and between the hi-hat and rack tom. The ride cymbal is usually positioned lower on its stand on the right side of the kit, and floats between the rack tom/s and floor tom.
If you have more than two cymbals, it’s pretty common to place them at different height levels and positions around the kit: experiment and find the places that feel most natural!
Dan Mayo surrounded by interesting cymbals
One of the many ways a drummer can develop a unique voice behind the kit is by adding different percussive instruments to their kit. Shakers, side-snares, electronics, mounted bongos, are just a few instruments that can be used to expand the sound of your kit.
Advancements in technology throughout the 100+ year existence of the drum set have expanded the range and role of the instrument.
Sunhouse is a recent technological advancement that has given drummers a voice in electronic music by translating the acoustic sound of the drums into a powerful digital controller, and allowing them to use their skills on the drums to produce music for modern pop genres.
Email, social media notifications, alarms, auto-alerts, instant messages, it’s all a bit much, isn’t it? Over the last two decades, the internet has afforded us access to a phenomenal amount of information and connectivity, but it’s also created a set of conditions that can be very psychologically taxing. For many of us, both our working and personal lives play out in increasingly frantic, overstimulated landscapes; and it can be a real struggle to keep up.
In response to this, as smartphones, tablets and computers have become increasingly central to modern life, recent years have been marked in part by the rise of meditation, mindfulness and self-care apps such as Calm and Headspace. Free to download, they’re digital balms designed to soothe us, and by the process of guiding us through mindfulness and meditation practices, help us create healthier relationships with these tools.
As clinical psychology research has shown, in even just a few minutes a day, the benefits of mindfulness travel into our everyday lives: improved physical health, mental health, happiness and overall well-being. With repetition, five minutes of practice can extend into half an hour, and the longer you spend in a mindful state, the better you’ll feel. At Melodics, we often think about a simple but powerful idea that illustrates this all very well;
greatness isn’t born; it’s grown, and we believe playing can be a form of mindfulness.
Have you ever been so completely and utterly immersed in a task that nothing else mattered, and the time flew away on you? If you’ve been there, it’s a state you probably wanted to return to. Some people get there through video games, sports or art. Other people get there through music and Melodics can be a pathway to that zone. Sit down, relax, start practicing, and let yourself enter the calm. Eventually, these actions become an outcome as you switch off from the outside world and immersion sets in.
Melodics artist Indi, a contemporary experimental musician and composer, currently based in Berlin, but originally from New Zealand, can see the relationship as well.
“The practice of music, to me, is the ultimate mental and emotional nourishment,” Indi says.
“When everything else in the world is in a constant state of emergency, there is nothing more freeing than focusing on a single melody, rhythm or piece for hours at a time. Taking time to do this acts as a form of self-care and meditation. The practice of music seems like an ancient, innate compulsion that everyone feels – it is just learning how to open up those valves of expression again.”
Melodics artist Leonard Charles, a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, programmer and producer from New Zealand, can also see the connection between music practice, mindfulness and meditation as well, but with a proviso. “It’s really important to learn to study your instrument in a relaxed mood,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a stressful environment. So, firstly, to get benefits from the relaxing nature of playing music, you need to approach playing your instrument in a relaxed manner.”
Leonard Charles’ thoughts underscore the realities often expressed by mindfulness and meditation advocates. These aren’t states you can instantly access; you have to build your way there through regular, consistent practice. It’s the same as working through Melodics lessons. Once you commit and get started, you’ll see results over time. With even just five minutes a day of practice, short streaks will become longer streaks, and a 50% score in a lesson will eventually become 100%.
Mindfulness is described as a practice for a reason, and much like Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, or the flow experience – a topic that we will dig into more shortly on the blog – the rewards that come with entering the zone will encourage you to invest the time required to return there. “If the instrument is played in this manner, calmly and with intent, then performance can become meditative,” Leonard Charles says.
“When the brain knows it is in a safe and comfortable environment, it will develop, and the benefits of this are sky high.”
“That song sounds so familiar, I’m trying to think what it reminds me of….”
Chances are it’s another song with the same chord progression. There are certain progressions that have been used over and over again in popular music. In this post, we will look at a few examples of the most common chord progressions and the corresponding lessons from the Common Chord Progressions course in Melodics for Keys.
What is a chord progression?
A chord progression is the sequence that chords are played in. Sometimes pop songs will use only one chord progression that repeats for the entire song. This can be as simple as three or four chords. The chords to many of the most popular songs of all time are no more complex than the examples in the Common Chord Progressions course.
Throughout the history of Pop music, a number of especially popular and common chord progressions have appeared, and even if you might not have realised it yet, you probably know dozens of songs that use the same sequence of chords.
Each of these progressions has a name written in Roman numerals. A brief explanation about what these mean is provided at the bottom of this post. This is not essential knowledge but rather included for those who are interested in reading further.
Listen to the preview from the Melodics lesson Celebration Time. Sound familiar? This chord progression has strong associations with positive, high energy music.
There are endless examples of this chord progression stretching right back into classical music, but its usage in Pop music is heavily rooted in Blues and Rock & Roll. Listen to this classic example: Wild Thing by The Troggs.
In the lesson Celebration Time, this progression is in the key of C, so the chords are:
Another immensely popular chord progression, but this time in a minor key. This automatically brings about associations with heavier or deeper themes. On that note, listen to Rolling in the Deep by Adele and compare it with the lesson Reflections.
The lesson Reflections is in the key of A minor, therefore the chords are:
A MinorG MajorF MajorG Major
Here are a few examples of the same chord progression in other eras and styles:
Perhaps the quintessential Pop music chord progression, this chord progression belongs to so many different sentiments, but at its core lies the same four chords. This famous video from comedy group Axis of Awesome addresses how broadly this progression is used:
In the lesson Always & Forever, we return to the key of C Major, meaning that the chords are:
C MajorG MajorA MinorF Major
By now you are probably noticing that the same chords are recurring in slightly different orders for each chord progression. If you try playing one chord over and over, you’ll notice that it doesn’t seem to express much. Yet the motion created when we arrange a few chords creates a whole range of possibilities.
It could be said that this progression has strong associations with sentimentality, and here are a few examples that reflect that. See if you can think of others.
When dealing with themes that are more intense, melancholic or brooding, a classic technique is to use a chord progression that ‘rises’ into a minor chord. This gives a feeling of resolution, but the resolution is serious and intense.
The lesson here is riffing on a classic example of this progression, Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush.
In the lesson, we are in the key of A Minor again. The chords are:
F MajorG MajorA Minor(A Minor)
There are numerous other examples of this chord progression, sometimes with the last chord substituted for another VI or VII chord. Here are some other examples:
This chord progression is essentially the mirror of chord progression 2 (Reflections), with the crucial difference being that it is in a minor key. This means that although it has a ‘happy’ moment when it reaches the third chord, it continues to resolve back to a more melancholic home chord.
A classic example of this chord progression is the song Zombie by the Cranberries, in which the chord progression repeats without variation underneath the whole song.
In the lesson Familiar Faces, we are in the key of A Minor, so the chords are:
A MinorF MajorC MajorG Major
Another classic example of this chord progression can be found in the chorus of the song Hello by Adele.
The final chord progression in this course is a little different to the others. It is not often used as a chord progression to underpin an entire song, but rather as a short section to end or resolve others.
This chord progression and its many variants are a significant feature in Jazz and are heavily utilised in the music of the Beatles. Listen to the first four chords of the song Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty and compare it to the lesson.
You might have noticed that the name of the chord progression is much more confusing than the others too. Worry not! Further information on this can be found at the end of this post.
In Treading on Heels, we are in the key of C Minor and use these chords.
C MinorC Minor/BC Minor/BbC Minor/A
Notice that every chord is actually a variant of C Minor, only the note written after the ‘/’ is changing.
Here are a few more examples, some using slightly different variations, and usually only in certain sections of the song. Challenge your ears and see if you can figure out where this progression appears in each song.
Loss Ageless – St Vincent
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
I See Monsters – Ryan Adams
Further information regarding the use of Roman numerals
The numerals correspond to the root note of the chord in relation to the key. For example, in the key of C, we would have:
If the numeral is upper case (I) it is a major chord, if it’s lower case (i) then it is minor. So the chords for C Major are:
C MajorD MinorE MinorF MajorG MajorA MinorB Mino
Applying this system to the key of A Minor, we have:
A MinorB MinorC MajorD MinorE MinorF MajorG Majo
Notice that the chords are identical in C Major and A Minor but appear in a different order and have different numerals. This is because these two keys use the exact same notes but have a different home chord. They are known as relative keys.
The reason we name the progressions as with roman numerals is because even if a song was in G Major, it could be using the exact same chord progression as a key in C Major. Here is an example:
In C:C MajorF MajorG MajorF Major
In G:G MajorC MajorD MajorC Major
This means that if we know the numeral names, we could play the same chord progression in any key, and you’ll find that many of the songs in this post aren’t just in C Major or A Minor, yet the sound of the progression is the same.
In regard to the last lesson, we have some chords that use a ‘/’. In theory, this is simple; if a chord has a ‘/’ in it, the numeral on the left is the chord played and the numeral on the right is the root note played underneath it. We call these slash chords or compound chords. When the notes played underneath do not come from the key of the song, we can alter the numeral with a sharp (#) or flat (b) symbol.
So if we have:
A MinorA Minor/GA Minor/F
Then adding an extra passing note before the G would give us:
A MinorA Minor/G#A Minor/GA Minor/F
ii/#VIIi/VIIi/VI If you are interested in learning more about music theory, a good place to start is the Melodics Music Theory course, and you can also read on here: link
In an interview with Dean Brown, he broke down his fundamentals of musicianship to three key points.
While these aspects overlap by nature and are blurry by definition, let’s look at some basic exercises and ideas to help build each of these cornerstones.
For clarity’s sake, we’ll say ears refers to both being able to learn music increasingly quickly and accurately by ear, and maybe even more importantly, the ability to listen and respond to others while playing.
Lexicon refers to your vocabularies, plural. Rhythmic vocabulary, melodic vocabulary, harmonic vocabulary, and maybe most importantly song vocabulary. For a working musician, especially playing jazz or doing covers, this might mean knowing how to play a lot of songs. I am more generally referring to familiarity with songs though. Being familiar with a lot of songs means that you have listened to a lot of music. This is obviously pretty crucial if you want to be a good musician. These days, personally, having familiarity with tunes is what makes them hard or easy to learn and to remember. There are tunes I’ve played before, maybe more than once which I would struggle to tell you any changes to. Because I never really got familiar with the song, I just read the chords or the part. It’s also what make strange parts or structures in songs no longer strange. It’s also easy to see how the osmosis of a lot of music will inform what you play.
Technique is the most self-explanatory. Technical proficiency. Can you play this fast passage? Can you play these complicated chord changes in time? Can you play in time Full stop? If we get a bit deeper, can you match the tone of this song (ears figures in here too, and perhaps also lexicon in recognising different effects or eq settings)? Can you match the FEEL of a groove? Can you perform under pressure or on big stages? While I do not believe there is any particular hierarchy with these 3 fundamental elements, technique is probably the easiest and fastest to recognise in a player.
Here are 3 additional musical fundamentals to consider. Two of these were drilled into me when I was learning guitar, but they translate 100% to every instrument including the voice. Time and Tone. The further you look into it, the more symbiotic these concepts become. Your tone influences your time, your time makes your tone work. Any great player will have abundant levels of both. You could call your time feel technique, you could call your tonetechnique and ears. The Third one is Taste. This is the subjective part of music no-one can really decide for you but yourself. However, your lexicon is probably the most influential outside informer of this.
Obviously this is a simplified view. Music is bottomless and so are the concepts and approaches within it. It is important to remember that it’s the fundamentals which will make you a good player. You can play the most complicated stuff in the world, and without them, it’ll never sound right. With them, you can play the simplest nursery rhyme and it will be good music.
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