The Drum Set As Melody Instrument

TroutMacDuff

Junior Member
Very interesting, but doesn't really change anything does it? Just definitions of things. I could call my shoes a melody instrument, I'd still use them solely for walking around in. Know what I mean? What "defines" the instrument is the way people use it over time, not the words they use to describe it.

That said, I did find it ainteresting read. Lots of good information there.
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
I could call my shoes a melody instrument, I'd still use them solely for walking around in.
You should be reclassified as a comedian! Shoes? Solely?? Indeed!!

I skimmed the article, and will give my take on the 2 questions Andrew poses right at the start:

"First, is the drum set physically capable of producing a melody?"

Capable, yes, to the extent that such melody is limited by the number of drums available. Less than 12 drums that can make identifiable pitches would result in a limitation for anyone genuinely trying to explore melody.

"And second, if the drum set is in fact capable of producing a melody, is melodic drumming a significant enough musical trend to justify this consideration?"

I wouldn't regard the examples given in the article to be significant at all compared to the body of music out there - not even prevalent enough within jazz - in order to suggest a trend of any kind.

I'm not saying that it's not cool or fun or inventive or even compelling, I'm just answering the 2nd question with a "no."

Bermuda
 
Last edited:

Notbob

Senior Member
You seem to be confusing the concepts of unpitched and indefinitely pitched sounds. A truly unpitched sound is something like a waterfall or a plosive in speech. A standard drum kit tom, though, is indefinitely pitched due to the lack of a true harmonic structure of its overtones, that is, a sequence that is not comprised of integer multiples of the fundamental. You can dance around this all you want but that fact remains. While you can "tune" the fundamentals of three toms to, say, C, E and G, the toms are not sounding these notes in the same manner as a definitely pitched instrument. If you did a roll between the three, it would NOT sound a C major chord. The overtones simply do not match up between the the notes the way they would with definitely pitched sources.

So while you can play drums in a particular sequence of fundamentals, you're really not playing a melody as traditionally defined. You can't harmonize those notes with accompanying chords in any meaningful way.

I find this to be a happy state of affairs. If this was not the case, we'd have to retune our kits every time the band played a song in a different key.

Bottom line, I think "melodic drumming" refers more to a style of playing and shouldn't be taken literally.
 

haredrums

Silver Member
Very interesting, but doesn't really change anything does it? Just definitions of things. I could call my shoes a melody instrument, I'd still use them solely for walking around in. Know what I mean? What "defines" the instrument is the way people use it over time, not the words they use to describe it.

That said, I did find it ainteresting read. Lots of good information there.
I see your point, but I do think it changes something about the way we think of the instrument and it's potential. Part of the point of the piece is that what we perceive an instrument as being capable of doing at least partially determines what the instrument can do. Although it is obviously ridiculous, thinking of your shoes as melody instruments would certainly change the way you dealt with them, no?
 

haredrums

Silver Member
You seem to be confusing the concepts of unpitched and indefinitely pitched sounds. A truly unpitched sound is something like a waterfall or a plosive in speech. A standard drum kit tom, though, is indefinitely pitched due to the lack of a true harmonic structure of its overtones, that is, a sequence that is not comprised of integer multiples of the fundamental. You can dance around this all you want but that fact remains. While you can "tune" the fundamentals of three toms to, say, C, E and G, the toms are not sounding these notes in the same manner as a definitely pitched instrument. If you did a roll between the three, it would NOT sound a C major chord. The overtones simply do not match up between the the notes the way they would with definitely pitched sources.

So while you can play drums in a particular sequence of fundamentals, you're really not playing a melody as traditionally defined. You can't harmonize those notes with accompanying chords in any meaningful way.

I find this to be a happy state of affairs. If this was not the case, we'd have to retune our kits every time the band played a song in a different key.

Bottom line, I think "melodic drumming" refers more to a style of playing and shouldn't be taken literally.
Hi Notbob,

I appreciate you taking the time to check out the article!

A couple of points in response:

1. An "unpitched" percussion instrument produces an indefinite pitch. I understand that there is quite a bit of confusion about these two terms, as unpitched could also be used to describe the sounds you use as examples. But in this case, the most important distinction is between definite and indefinite pitch.

2. As I point out in the article, two headed drums (toms, snares, entenga drums, etc..) can and often are considered to be definite pitched percussion instrument. While it is true that there is some interaction between the two heads that can introduce frequencies that cloud the harmonic spectra and make the sound harder to place in a frequency based scale. It also true that if a drum with two heads is played/tuned in a particular fashion, it produces a clearly recognizable pitch. By pitch I mean a series of frequencies at or very close to harmonic spectra that are relatively easily placed in a frequency based scale.

In other words, I disagree with your statement that the drums produce a sound with a "sequence that is not comprised of integer multiples of the fundamental". All the research that I referenced in the article suggest two things. First, that the drum can and does produce series of frequencies close to integer multiples of the fundamental (what I am referring to as "harmonic spectra"), and second that pitch perception is largely subjective. That is, there is very little actual scientific consensus about what relationship pitch has to harmonic spectra, and that a host of factors influence how we perceive pitch, not just math.

This point seems to be the most contentious, but it really doesn't have to be. Just think about playing a well-tuned tom with a mallet and a nice touch. Do you think you could recognize/sing the pitch that the tom produced? Do you think you could match it to a pitch from the piano? I certainly can and do, and I know that this is pretty standard practice amongst many of my drummer friends.

3. I don't really understand what you mean when you say you can tune a drum to C, E, and G, but that playing them like an arpeggio would not sound like a C major chord. If you can make a drum sound like a C, and E, and G, why wouldn't playing them as an arpeggio sound like a C major chord? What is the difference? There are lots of examples of drummers doing exactly what you are describing.

4. Also, a melody doesn't need a harmony under it to be a melody. A melody is just a series of pitches in time. So if you can tune your drums to particular pitches as you describe, why couldn't you play a melody?

5. I agree that having to retune the drums would be pretty ridiculous, but that really isn't my point. I'm not talking about what is practical, or even what most people do most of the time. I am trying to understand what is possible on this instrument, and to imagine some potential outcomes of where it could be going in the future.

Thanks again for the feedback, I appreciate it!
 

fakeflyer737

Senior Member
You guys should check out Ari Hoenig playin Moanin' on a record called Lines of Oppression, he plays the melody of tune on the drums and its perfect, it really is unbelievable.
 

bermuda

Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
What about Bozzio?
He would be the only possible exception that I can think of, but even he employs melodics more within the context of his rhythms and textures, and not as a means to play melody as most of us would define it. Even with him as a contemporary, living example, he's one-of-a-kind. I don't think that's nearly enough to classify drums as a melodic instrument in anyone else's hands.

Bermuda
 

Jankowske

Senior Member
Posted that before I saw your first comment.

I agree; I was just wondering why the OP didn't address probably the most compelling example of "melodic drumming" or whatever this thread is about.
 

KamaK

Platinum Member
I've just assumed that drums had been melodic ever since some caveman got the idea to pick up two of them and start playing the "George of the Jungle" intro.
 

Andy

Administrator
Staff member
While you can "tune" the fundamentals of three toms to, say, C, E and G, the toms are not sounding these notes in the same manner as a definitely pitched instrument. If you did a roll between the three, it would NOT sound a C major chord. The overtones simply do not match up between the the notes the way they would with definitely pitched sources.

So while you can play drums in a particular sequence of fundamentals, you're
First, that the drum can and does produce series of frequencies close to integer multiples of the fundamental (what I am referring to as "harmonic spectra"), and second that pitch perception is largely subjective. That is, there is very little actual scientific consensus about what relationship pitch has to harmonic spectra, and that a host of factors influence how we perceive pitch, not just math.
(Exhibit "A") http://youtu.be/JgFt6QFzfEM?t=1m7s Hear how the fundamentals & overtones align progressively as David involves more drums, & even eventually the fundamental of the bass drum (use good headphones or similar). Given enough drums, something that most would consider a "chord" is entirely possible.

My take from a drum designer's perspective, it's all in the management of overtones, & yes, they can be managed within the instrument design. Broadly, you have two groups of overtones - lower overtones (but obviously, still above the fundamental) that are typically static features, & errant overtones (usually high, & irregular in their manifestation). A high quality instrument is designed such that the errant high overtones are largely engineered out. That leaves a judgement call on the balance between the remaining overtones & the fundamental. Drum designs that reduce overtones to near audible zero are entirely possible, but regarded as not very satisfying to most players. Too thin, too one dimensional, so a mix is used to "fatten" out the tone.

Most drum sets have a fairly diminished fundamental. The example in the first video is more balanced by comparison. In this example however, errant high overtones are completely eradicated, but "fixed" overtones are encouraged even more than the first example. This changes the bias more towards a "tuned" instrument (exhibit "B") http://youtu.be/XojpGAmH4NI?t=44s

BTW, piano notes are similarly composed of fundamental & overtones, but as there's fewer variables, the overtones are typically closer to (but not necessarily the same as) the fundamental harmonics. Once sympathetic resonance of the other strings, frame, & body of the piano is involved, a larger & often more "eclectic" range of overtones are at play. The key difference between piano & drums in this regard is repeatability / consistency, & the bias between fundamental & overtones. As I mentioned earlier, it's entirely possible to bias drum design heavily towards a super dominant fundamental, & in such an example, the difference between piano & drums are fairly small. It's just a question of number of notes & practicality.
 

Diet Kirk

Silver Member
KiS - so what we need to do then (and by we, I mean you!) is produce such a kit which covers say two octaves and shoot a video of two maybe three, maybe even four drummers playing said kit and see if it can create chords, melody lines with a pleasing sound!

Lets ignore for a second that it would be expensive. Think of it as possible the future of drums. New Orleans second line bands already often use two or three drummers playing individual kit elements, think of how drum lines could function as well. Andy you could shape the future!

(I'm not actually being sarcastic about this, its an interesting subject and its a shame that its not cost effective to try it!)
 

wildbill

Platinum Member
Both melody and harmony have been brought in.

Melodic drumming - sure, no problem. You aren't going to have pure fundamentals, for sure. But they should be recognizable.

Harmonic drumming, would, as Diet Kirk suggested, would require at least a couple drummers.

Tuned percussion players - vibes, marimbas, etc., are able to manipulate 4 mallets simultaneously.
 

haredrums

Silver Member
(Exhibit "A") http://youtu.be/JgFt6QFzfEM?t=1m7s Hear how the fundamentals & overtones align progressively as David involves more drums, & even eventually the fundamental of the bass drum (use good headphones or similar). Given enough drums, something that most would consider a "chord" is entirely possible.

My take from a drum designer's perspective, it's all in the management of overtones, & yes, they can be managed within the instrument design. Broadly, you have two groups of overtones - lower overtones (but obviously, still above the fundamental) that are typically static features, & errant overtones (usually high, & irregular in their manifestation). A high quality instrument is designed such that the errant high overtones are largely engineered out. That leaves a judgement call on the balance between the remaining overtones & the fundamental. Drum designs that reduce overtones to near audible zero are entirely possible, but regarded as not very satisfying to most players. Too thin, too one dimensional, so a mix is used to "fatten" out the tone.

Most drum sets have a fairly diminished fundamental. The example in the first video is more balanced by comparison. In this example however, errant high overtones are completely eradicated, but "fixed" overtones are encouraged even more than the first example. This changes the bias more towards a "tuned" instrument (exhibit "B") http://youtu.be/XojpGAmH4NI?t=44s

BTW, piano notes are similarly composed of fundamental & overtones, but as there's fewer variables, the overtones are typically closer to (but not necessarily the same as) the fundamental harmonics. Once sympathetic resonance of the other strings, frame, & body of the piano is involved, a larger & often more "eclectic" range of overtones are at play. The key difference between piano & drums in this regard is repeatability / consistency, & the bias between fundamental & overtones. As I mentioned earlier, it's entirely possible to bias drum design heavily towards a super dominant fundamental, & in such an example, the difference between piano & drums are fairly small. It's just a question of number of notes & practicality.
KiS,

I am so happy to have your perspective on this issue! In the course of my research for this article, I was astounded at how little evidence there really is for the pervasive idea that the drum set is and HAS to be an unpitched percussion instrument. The reason I wrote this article is that most people don't understand that it is even possible for the drums to produce what can properly be called a pitch. In fact, the drum can absolutely produce pitches if it is built/played/tuned in a particular fashion.

I think that your point about repeatability/consistency is exactly right, and the difficulty of getting a clear, repeatable pitch from a drum prevents most people from considering it a possibility.

That being said, people like Jeff Hamilton and Ari Hoenig really changed my perspective on what is possible on the instrument. I think that the key here is that the new techniques for bending the pitch of the drum consistently that those guys employ will allow drummers to get a much broader range of pitches, without resorting to the Terry Bozzio approach (who I dig by the way). Here is one of my favorite examples:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr-d3tO-sXM

Regardless of what people think about using the drums this way, my first and most important point is that it is possible for the drums to produce actual melodies with actual pitches. There is no scientific evidence (that I am aware of) about the way that the drums make sound that contradicts this.

And yet, I have been told on countless occasions that it is physically impossible for the drums to produce a clear pitch. I think that this idea about the drums needs to be re-examined.

Also, as I say in the article my point is not that everyone has to play melodically. Nobody thinks that we are all going to start tuning our drums to the key of every tune we play! That being said, I think that the POSSIBILITY of playing the drums this way is exciting, and is starting to gather some real musical momentum.

That is why I suggest in the summary of the article that drums be classified a "conditionally pitched" percussion instrument. That is, they can be thought of as producing either definite or indefinite pitches depending on the context in which they are being played.
 

haredrums

Silver Member
He would be the only possible exception that I can think of, but even he employs melodics more within the context of his rhythms and textures, and not as a means to play melody as most of us would define it. Even with him as a contemporary, living example, he's one-of-a-kind. I don't think that's nearly enough to classify drums as a melodic instrument in anyone else's hands.

Bermuda
Hey Bermuda,

I have to disagree with you about the way Bozzio plays a melody. I think many times he switches rapidly between using the drums as a rhythm and melody instrument. But when he is playing purely melodically, he is absolutely playing a melody the way that most of us define it. This is a melody:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CroX237dzfY

Not only that, but he strongly implies a harmony under in the intro of this solo by playing different arpeggios (as discussed in a previous response).

Even more importantly, Bozzio's is not the only, or even in my opinion the most interesting version of melodic drumming. Check out Ari Hoenig playing on a normal drum kit (the tune is "This Little Light of Mine").

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDITFrf0PLs

I'm not saying that everyone is doing this, but more people are starting to. I think that this is an exciting new development in drumming, and definitely worth talking about since it makes us reexamine our fundamental assumptions about our instrument!
 

larryace

"Uncle Larry"
My thoughts are if you really want to play melody, don't play drums. There's better melodic instruments. What if you want to hold a whole note? You SOL with drums, there's not enough sustain.

Drums provide the framework that melody needs to cling to.

Not saying you can't be melodic with drums, but I am saying there's better choices of instruments to play melody on.

Like I wouldn't want to use a guitar to do what my drums do. I could mimic bass and snare tones, but it's really limited.

And when a drummer plays melody, where does the framework go? If it's during a solo, then yea, fine. But in an ensemble situation the drummer is there to provide a counterpoint in a sense.

A red object on a red background doesn't pop. A red object on a black background pops. Drums are the black background, melody is the red object. It needs something opposite it to shine.

Like I said, it's all possible, but to me it's like trying to dig a grave with a teaspoon. There's better tools.
 

Andy

Administrator
Staff member
I have been told on countless occasions that it is physically impossible for the drums to produce a clear pitch.
Try telling that to a timpanist :)

And when a drummer plays melody, where does the framework go?
This is the rub Larry, there's a time & place, but that doesn't mean drums are always poor melodic instrument choice. In an otherwise rhythmic setting, drums can be used to great melodic effect in a refrain or other transition / "space" in modern music forms, plus even more so in other music forms.

Drums can be used "suggest" or support melody where other more obviously tuned instruments are too overt.

Overall though, I agree. Drums, & in particular, a drum set, have little true melody role in modern music IMO.
 

Hollywood Jim

Platinum Member
Drums provide the framework that melody needs to cling to.

Drums are the black background, melody is the red object. It needs something opposite it to shine.
Yeah, right there is the truth.

For example notice that for the Guitar Center drum off, the drummers that “entertain” the best are the ones that use those Roland pads.
They add musical chords to their solos. Which in this case (as Larry points out) makes the drums shine (stand out) because of the opposing musical sounds.


.
 

Hollywood Jim

Platinum Member
I have always loved the show "Stomp".
They create a whole entertaining show using very few if any melodic instruments.

.
 
Top