A student of mine recently asked me how I learn to play music, and more specifically, drums just by listening. So, I thought I’d write a quick guide to learning and playing drums by ear!
To me, learning the skills to playing drums by ear isn’t as too complicated. In the following paragraphs I put a framework that to help you accurately transpose what you hear into the drums.
This framework based on asking the right questions. Let’s suppose that your job is to learn drums to songs by ear. As with any other work, you go through a mental process of asking yourself a set of specific questions. Asking the right questions will lead you to the correct answer.
So what are these questions? Below are the ones I think most relevant. Keep in mind, however, that this takes time and practice, so you’ll need patience in training and develop your ear.
Question #1: How good is my time?
A very important aspect of learning and playing drums by ear your sense of time. This means being able to feel the music at the correct time; not faster or slower, and to the correct time signature. You need to be able match each stroke to its corresponding drum in time.
If you are a beginner, or new to playing drums, developing your timing doesn’t necessarily start with you playing single strokes on a pad against a metronome. A great alternative is listening to music and clapping or tapping along to the pulse created by the bass drum. Incidentally, most popular music is counted in 4/4 (i.e. four beats per measure), so this is not too difficult to achieve with a little practice!
By the way, if you’re interested in lessons, check my drum lessons page here! I teach this stuff and more, so get in touch when you’re done.
Question #2: What sounds am I hearing?
This question is just as important as Question #1 as you need to put the work in before going any further!
The drum set is an instrument made up of multiple instruments. Being able to recognise what each element of the drum set sounds like is crucial, as it can help us isolate these sounds. This is important for several reasons, including helping you determine:
When are those sounds taking place
We want to be able to place the sounds we recognise along a timeline or map – much like we would programme a drum beat in MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).
Who and what is producing those sounds
We need to be able to differentiate whether the sounds are being produced by the drummer, or someone / something else. This is because extra rhythm layers can be produced by a percussionist, a DJ, or by samples. For instance, if we hear shakers and we know the drummer is using all his limbs on the drum set to deliver the groove, by process of elimination we can discard that as part of what we want to be playing.
Which sounds should each limb play
Watch videos or drummers play isolated drum grooves to help you assign the different sounds they’re creating with each limb! Generally-speaking, the feet play the bass drums and hi hats, and the hands will play the snare, toms, hi hats and cymbals.
An extra, fun consideration is that it helps to know who is the drummer playing on the track. Masters like Thomas Lang can create the illusion of multiple drummers playing at once! Simply check out this brilliant performance below and you’ll know what I mean.
Question #3: When are these sounds happening?
Once you’re familiar with the sounds you’re hearing, you then need to start mapping them in time. Think of this as putting the sounds in order of which you hear them. If you’re familiar with MIDI, this is similar to programming a drum beat whereby you allocate sounds along a piano roll (or timeline).
To begin this process start with a reference point, which can be very abstract. For instance, with the guitar you’d first need to recognise a note within a song. Once you’ve recognised it, determine whether the subsequent note is higher or lower in pitch, and so on.
When you learn drums by ear, the reference point I’d like to demonstrate, given it applies to most popular music, is a basic rock beat (i.e. snare drum on beats 2 & 4, bass on beats 1 & 3 with eighth notes on the hi-hats).
Being able to count beats will help! Particularly being able to break 1 2 3 4 down into smaller subdivisions like sixteenth notes (semiquavers) 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a, etc.
Once we determine our reference point we’re then able to match it. In other words, we can place it directly on top of the beat we’re trying to figure out, making sure that we’re superimposing it at the correct time.
On a related note, you can check out my article on how to play drums here.
Question #4: What’s happening within the groove or fill that makes it sound like it does?
Once our reference point has been established correctly within our mental piano roll / timeline, start thinking about how the groove differs from our reference:
Can we recognise extra snare or bass drums happening?
What’s happening with the hi-hats? Can we hear extra hi-hats being played as sixteenth or 32nd notes?
What cymbals are being played, and what drums are happening at the same time?
If so, where do all of these fall within the piano roll / timeline?
When talking about a fill (assuming we’re still counting 1 2 3 4) how many additional sounds / strokes are occurring in between each beat? Do we hear tom toms? If so, how many?
Here are a few tips to further help you in the process.
It’s a lot easier to recognise what’s happening when what you’re hearing coincides with how it’s being played. If you’re hearing the hi-hats on your right speaker (or headphone), chances are you’re hearing what it sounds like to be looking at the drummer from an audiences perspective (i.e. tom toms will also start highest to Floor Toms from right to left). Ergo, why not try switching your headphones around so that you’re hearing and visualising the kit from the drummer’s seat?
Subdivision of beats
The more you are able to subdivide your 1 2 3 4 count in your head the more freedom you’ll have placing hits in relation to others, no matter what time signature. You want the subdivisions to be endless, giving you a certain fluidity to drop a stroke anywhere you want along your timeline.
Following the above framework will hopefully provide you with a good foundation to learn playing drums by ear. I’ve tried not to go into excruciating detail, or use too many musical terms, in order to keep things in plain English. That said, my biggest suggestion would be to start with simple songs and drum beats!
What’s interesting to me is that not everyone is able to accurately figure music out by ear. This implies there’s a certain element of “hearing what you want to hear” versus what is actually happening. We need to be as objective as possible throughout the process.
Yet does playing what you hear as opposed to playing what is ‘actually’ being played matter? If not, then once we’ve built our interpretation, we could proceed to refine our results. There are tools online which can help us with this such tablature (i.e. tabs), YouTube and its covers, software to slow down a song without losing pitch, etc. The trick, once again, to start simple and to remain objective. Keep an open mind to other interpretations, as this will further help you hone and tune your ears.
If you enjoyed this and are interested in learning drums, check out my drum lessons and get in touch!
Also, check out my drum book to help you develop your creative ideas on the drums, and my pillowcase practice pad CHOPZzz; the world’s first!
Originally published by Drummer Magazine in Issue 131, August 2014