Everyone can count right?
This is a more contentious issue than you may think. Studies have shown that we count by using a variety of methods and even those who haven’t yet been taught about numbers – children of pre-school age for example – know by instinct what one, two and three look, feel, smell and sound like, and then anything beyond three is simply considered more. The contention is not made any simpler when the cultural implications of counting are considered. The Pirahã, for example, are an indigenous tribe of the Amazon. Because they do not trade or keep accounts, they have little use for large, exact numbers and use only ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’. Without the cultural demand for utilising large numbers, they have neither invented the words or developed the concept.
In this light, counting is an instinctive trait which we can build upon. Counting in time, however, is a different matter altogether and it requires the capacity to learn when a count sounds ‘right’, whatever we have decided what ‘right’ must sound like. What any one musician considers a ‘steady’ count to be is also dependent on their particular cultural background.
In western rock and pop music, drummers have adopted and developed a method for counting rhythmic feel against the tempo of any given piece of music. They typically do this by giving the rhythmic phrasing its own unique feel depending on what is required by the music. In simple terms this is the use of 4, 8, and 16 note phrases counted out against a rhythmic form. This is one method amongst others of controlling the perceived momentum of any given rhythmic pattern. Notice that I have made an assumption here. Although the use of rhythmic feel counted against a beat exists, it is in fact not necessary for a drummer to be aware that is what they are doing when they play. For example, the only reason you would need to know that you where playing quarter notes against a beat is if you found that you had to explain what it was you where doing to another person. Many drummers have figured out these types of feel as a matter of course, letting their ears and intuition guide what they express. This is especially true in parts of the world where drumming hasn’t been indoctrinated by an academic curriculum. So we can say that an intuitive type of counting exists in drumming too.
Perhaps there is an advantage to counting in this way and perhaps not. I know that many people learning the drum kit as a beginner need to count out beats as they learn them, until a point in time when they know them and can introduce new rhythmic ideas without having to re-learn the entire pattern from scratch. Other people, including those lucky enough to have learned from a very early age, tend to find themselves counting beats in a different way, understanding rhythmic phrasing and structure as a sort of shape formed out of movement to be moulded to our own ends. In both cases, the best result is that coordinated movements become memorised to the point of reflex in a way that can be easily recalled with very little introspection into the process of playing.
So in musical terms, counting becomes an instinctive foundation on which we build rhythms. In this respect, counting for a drummer has returned to being an intuitive feeling, a kind of separate skill to the coordination and sequencing skills involved in performing any fully learned part. This separation between coordinated, independent movement and intuitive counting creates space for us to explore the way we put our own creative spin on things and evolve our musical ideas.
I was always taught that feel is in the leading hand. So whether I find myself playing a rock beat or improving against a swing pattern, my right hand keeps the feel and the timing whilst guiding the rest of my movements on the kit. This way my drumming should sound fluid and I have control over the feel, tempo, and dynamics from moment to moment.
This is true up to a point but obviously something has to control my leading hand and this control is a count that happens in my mind. So despite feedback from the pulse of the leading hand, there must be some form of inner count going on in order to guide and predict the pulse in the fist place.
Increasingly, I find that I am not relying on my leading hand whilst practising or creating new drum patterns. To play in this manner, a drummer needs to free up their leading hand in order to allow for new ideas and different phrases to happen. This requires a leap of faith and putting trust in your internal count and instinctive sense of time. The best way I can illustrate this idea is to give some examples of musical pieces where the drummer illustrates this innate skill to some degree.
Internal Count Playlist
For each track on this playlist list, the performance of the drummer relies more strongly on their internal count in order to forgo the regular control of the leading hand pattern. This skill is adopted in order to allow for fresh rhythmic concepts including syncopated or uneven phrasing.
1. Radiohead – Morning Mr Magpie
Here the hi-hat pattern is double tracked indicating that the drums have been built up as a sample. The live version, however, adopts a similar style with the hats playing a displaced, syncopated pattern.
2. Cardiacs – For Good and All
This is definitely a live drummer. Again, the hi-hat pattern plays an off-beat 16th note pattern, depending on how you count it. There are also two bridge sections where a quarter note triplet plays a sort of off-beat pulse, in contrast to the pulse of the section before and after.
3. Amon Tobin – Nova
Various drum layers built up here. The main theme is based around a Bossa Nova style clave pattern.
4. Tom Waits – Straight to the Top
Usually these sort of off-beat percussion or drum patterns will resolve in places which allows the listener to gain some purchase on the down beat. In contrast, this pattern only resolves on the last note of the track.
5. Three Trapped Tigers – 10
Although heavily processed, these are real drums played by a real drummer. This is a totally disjointed beat but with a fairly consistent two or four bar progression. The down beats hold the whole pattern together.
Words by Ben Martin – BGM Rhythms
This article featured in issue three of The Drummers Journal.