The Importance of Musical Structure

In working with a lot of younger students (and some older ones too), I've found that most of them have no concept about phrasing & song structure. Yes, they can play a wide variety of drum beats, often very technical ones. But they have little or no concept of what to do with those beats and how to put them together into musical phrases. I see part of this problem stemming from the fact that as drummers, we don't play melodies, chord progressions, or bass lines. Even some students who play a lot of mallets just play what is on the paper in front of them, without giving any thought to how all those notes are arranged on that paper. The other part of the problem is that rarely do any drum instruction books talk about structure. Instead, they give us endless rhythmic exercises, but without a context for how to use them in a musical application. So let's take a basic look at structure and how to bring it into our drumming.

If you play a melodic instrument, the chances are you work on playing the melody and/or chord progression. Both of these have a built in structure, say 8 or 12 bars. In playing drums, you need to create structure to work from. Here is an excerpt from my drum instruction book, THE THINKING DRUMMER - ENERGY & MOTION. These ideas will work with almost any drum book, whether it be for drum set, snare drum, hand drums, etc.

Most drum books are set up as a series of numbered exercises. For example, drum set books are often set up like this:



Using Phrasing and Structure
  1. Play each exercise on the ride/HH/etc. Count and feel things in 4-bar phrases. 
  2. Play 4/8 bar phrases, changing from Ride to HH/etc. when you play the next phrase. Make sure that there is continuity and flow when you change. 
  3. Play 4/8 bar phrases changing both the cymbal and beat. For example: play Ride Cymbal for 4-bars on beat #14, then HH for 4-bars on beat #15, then repeat (or change to another beat). 
  4. Play each page as one long exercise, using the above ideas and 4 or 8-bar phrases. 
  5. Always play with varied dynamics (see Dynamics & Phrasing
  6. Be creative and change things each time you sit down and work on them.


More ways to work with these exercises:

  • When you are done playing through all the exercises with an 8 note ride, go back and play through them with a quarter note ride. 
  • Then alternate 4/8 bars of 8 ride with 4/8 bars of quarter note ride. First play 1 beat, and change the cymbal pattern. Then change the beat and the cymbal pattern.
You can do the same sort of thing with snare drum books. Play each exercise as a 4 or 8 bar phrase, then go on to the next one. Play 2 or more together as a longer structure, much like you would in a song. 

No matter what type of music you play, it's important to always be aware of the structure & phrasing of the music. Only then can we have the freedom to become an integral part of things and play with authority.

~ MB

      Examples © Intuitive Arts Media (IAM) and used with permission.

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