Do Drummers Need Music Theory?
Tl;dr: YES. But only some of it. Melodic theory (chords, scales, etc.) doesn't hurt to know, but it's not necessary for us drummers. Instead, we absolutely need to understand time signatures and subdivisions, at least to some extent. You might be self taught and not able to explain what you're playing, but still sound great, and that's fine. But having a deeper understanding of time signatures and especially subdivisions can be one of the biggest eye-openers you'll ever experience in your drumming. It has been for me, and I keep opening new doors in my drumming just by learning more about how to use subdivisions.
Let's dive in a bit deeper.
In music, everything we hear can be narrowed down to being based on four pillars of theory - pulse, time signatures, subdivisions, and melody.
- Pulse, and in extension tempo, is fundamentally what everything in music revolves around.
- Time signatures give basic musical structure and form to the pulse. How many beats should we play before we move into a new bar?
- Subdivisions define rhythm and its speed, relative to the pulse.
- Melody adds color to rhythm, and chords add color to structure.
You can dive quite in-depth into all of these four pillars, but perhaps the most theory-intensive pillar is melody. Chords and chord progressions, modes, scales and SO MUCH MORE. There is a lot to unpack in tonal theory.
Luckily for us drummers, we don't REALLY need to know any of that. Our interpretation of melody on the drums has more to do with texture, dynamics and orchestration than actual tuned notes and "real melodies". However, instead, this means we need to put a much larger emphasis on the other parts of music theory that are so crucial to our instrument and our role in music.
1) First, let's talk about pulse and time signatures, seeing as they work together so closely.
Time signatures essentially dictate how many pulse-beats we should play/count/feel before starting a new bar, which in turn dictates the entire feel and flow of everything in the music. Let's take the most common time signature as an example, which is 4/4. The first number is how high we should count to. The second number is WHAT we should count, meaning what subdivision. 4/4 therefore means that we should count 4 beats of quarter notes, and this is what you're already probably very used to hearing in most popular music.
Understanding how time signatures work, combined with practice and making yourself used to hearing and feeling different time signatures, will eventually allow you to play in any time signature.
2) And with that, let's talk about subdivisions. This is, in my opinion, something you ABSOLUTELY NEED to know very well to take your drumming to a higher level. You might know it on a subconscious level, meaning that you can play with ease in different subdivisions and make great use of them, but perhaps you're not able to explain what you're playing. Or you might know all the theory behind how subdivisions work (which really isn't much!) and use that knowledge in every facet of your drumming. Let me explain why subdivisions are so important.
First of all, WHAT ARE subdivisions?
Remember how I mentioned pulse earlier? Between every downbeat, there is time, which you can fill with notes. If you fill that time with a certain amount of notes in total, for example 2 or 6 notes, and all of those notes are equally spaced apart in time, you're playing a specific subdivision. Four notes in the same time as one downbeat is what's called 16th notes. Six notes would be called 16th note triplets. Two notes would be 8th notes. And so on, and so forth.
Every amount of evenly spaced notes in the same space of time has a name tied to it, AND THAT'S WHAT SUBDIVISIONS ARE. Nothing more, nothing less, in practicality at least. If you can simply learn the names and the numbers of each subdivision, understand how to use them, practice your timing so that you're comfortable playing in- and switching between different subdivisions, that's going to be a HUGE step forward in your drumming.
So to summarize:
If you're a drummer, I can highly recommend that you invest some time into learning more about time signatures and subdivisions. Literally everything you will ever play on this instrument, or any instrument for that matter, will benefit from that knowledge. You can absolutely play without knowing the theory - I've met many drummers who have had amazing feel, musical intuition and sound, yet they couldn't explain much of that they're doing, but I'm 100% positive that if these drummers took the time to learn more about the theory behind their sound, they would reach an entirely new level of musical skill.
Do you agree or disagree? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
All the best,
- Siros Vaziri
Want to learn more from Siros about time signatures or subdivisions? Sign up for a Skype lesson!