On Drumming

On Drumming

My thesis is that all playing of musical instruments is drumming. Drumming is what they all have in common, what constitutes their underlying real essence. It might be thought that this cannot be right, because drums are a rhythm instrument and other instruments are used to produce melody. But actually, drums also produce melody in that they have different tones or pitches (drums proper as well as cymbals). Without these tonal differences a drum set would be a poor musical instrument (monotonous, boring). The pitches succeed each other musically and can be superimposed to produce chords. And clearly, we can envisage drum sets that are more tonally designed, with each drum tuned to a specific note and melodies played by striking these drums. There is nothing atonal about drums and drumming. A good drummer (especially a jazz drummer) will use pitch and timbre differences to accentuate and enliven his or her playing. But how can other instruments be forms of drumming? Consider first the xylophone: it is very similar to a set of drums and clearly the act of striking the plates is a type of drumming. The OED gives us the following for “drum” (verb): “beat or play (as) on a drum; make a continuous noise by rapidly repeated blows”. For “drum” (noun) we get: “a percussion instrument sounded by being struck with sticks or the hands”. These definitions fit the xylophone perfectly—and you just have to look at a xylophone player to see the similarity to paradigm drummers. A device (“stick”) is used to strike or tap or otherwise impact a surface that responds by making a particular sound the purpose of which is to produce music. There would be no essential difference if the plates were replaced by drums. True, we don’t call xylophone players drummers, but that is because such a description would be misleading for conversational implicature reasons; however, it is literally true that they employ drumming motions in playing their instrument. Now the piano: the hands are brought down on the keys which then produce notes by way of the instrument’s mechanism. The fingers work percussively (OED: “the action of playing a musical instrument by striking or shaking it”). The pianist is a species of drummer: he hits keys that produce sounds in response. You might say that he also touches or depresses keys, but remember that drummers sometimes use brushes not sticks—it’s not all vigorous banging. And some pianists are highly percussive (e.g., Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard). What about stringed instruments, which may be picked, plucked or bowed? Well, they too are operated by means of percussive actions, more or less vigorous (think of Pete Townsend’s slamming chords). Again, we have a striking action performed on a responsive medium—but a string not a membrane (the drum head or skin). It would be possible to stretch a string over a drum head and pluck it so as to make it strike the drum; that would still be a type of drumming.[1] So, playing guitar, say, qualifies as a form of drumming, as does violin playing. The interior of the instrument (resonance chamber) resembles the interior of a drum, and the action of playing it is like striking (or brushing) the skin of the drum (you can drum your fingers on a table, remember). There is no reason of principle why you couldn’t bow the head of a drum; to be a drummer it is not necessary to drum—you can also scrape, stroke, and palpate. You could be a drummer and never actually drum, or use a drum for that matter. So, logically, pianists and guitarists could be drummers without using drums or even drumming. Still, I prefer the strong and simple thesis that all instrumentalists are drummers, all instruments are drums, and all playing on instruments is drumming. Any oddity in these propositions arises from conversational implicature; logically, drumming is the rule, the universal. Drumming is the underlying essence of all these activities; it is the natural kind that subsumes them. But surely (you protest) wind instruments are not drums and playing them is not drumming—there is no use of hands or feet! By now my response to this will be predictable: first, the hands and fingers are used in depressing the pistons or blocking the holes; but second, air is forcibly expelled into the instrument causing it to vibrate and respond with a particular sound. Drums could be played this way too: a burst of air could be directed at the drum head and a sound elicited. We have a physical (mechanical) stimulus and a musical response—an impact producing a sound in the course of making music. What if the trumpet player were to produce a series of sharp bursts of air that impact the reed and produce rhythmic sounds—wouldn’t that be very like playing the drums? It might even be synchronized with the drummer; the trumpeter has joined the rhythm section. Bass players and rhythm guitarists are already there, striking strings. Finally, the voice: again, this is not difficult to slot into place—the singer drums (percusses) by propelling air into the vocal cords (really vocal membrane) and producing musical sounds. We are familiar with beat-box voicing—imitating the sound of drums with the mouth—so it is not much of a stretch to include ordinary singing in our natural kind. Singing is a variety of percussion—one thing hitting another to produce musical sounds. Tap dancing is also a type of drumming and may be used musically; singing is really not all that different—vocal tapping (using the larynx to produce music by physical impacts). So, all music-making is really drumming: this is its hidden architecture, its compositional make-up, its basic anatomy. There is a continuum from regular drums through xylophone, piano, violin and guitar, wind instruments, and voice—with no natural break or division. Probably drums are the oldest of these instruments, and most primordial, but other instruments build on the same basic idea.[2] That is why it is natural to pick drums out as paradigmatic, but really, we have a family of instruments all united by a common principle—by the mechanism of percussion. We hit things to make sounds and then we string these sounds together to create rhythm and melody. All music is drumming refined and extended. The drummer is the progenitor of all music. Ringo Starr was well-named: he made the Beatles possible.[3]

[1] The snare drum consists of a bunch of wires stretched tight over the reverse side of the drum, so the snare is stringed in much the same way a guitar is.

[2] I suspect that football (soccer) plays a similar role in the genesis of other sports: all other sports are variations on it or developments of it. Don’t say that football isn’t played with the hands, as many other sports are. First, football is partly played with the hands (throw-ins, goalkeeper); and second, the feet are always involved in hand-centered sports, because players have to run around. The basic form of sports consists of an object (often a ball) that is moved around in a competitive activity. Kicking a ball is one of the first sporting activities kids learn. But I won’t go into this further.

[3] Does it surprise you to learn that I was originally a drummer who moved onto guitar, harmonica, and voice? I always kept my love of drums, however. I believe that drumming is a basic human need. Drummers don’t get the respect they deserve. Drummers are close to the World Spirit (as I’m sure Charlie, Keith, and Ringo would agree, all singular figures). Drummers are cool.

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4 replies
  1. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    I’ve always thought drummers were mad as brushes albeit a good short of brush or even a hotrod. I’m thinking Animal from the muppets here. Yet despite the apparent insanity of just hitting things, few instruments (if any really) require the level of ambidextrous and ambipedal capability that drums do. I’m also sure there will be some drummer who specialises in head-butting the floor tom every now and again. I have excellent timing, but alas not the ability to get all four limbs to do it.

    Rhythm is certainly the key to everything musical. It is the rhythm of a word or even just walking that can inspire a melody. So I think hitting things is a beautiful exercise in causality and time ( without which music would be just one long chord ).

    Incidentally running a violin bow vertically down the edge of a cymbal is an almost mystical experience.

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