Training your ears
The majority of ideas I get for blog topics come directly from student questions and/or common challenges I notice. Every single student of mine has asked me this question in one way or another, and that is "How do you figure out a drum beat just from listening to it"?
Training your ears to distinguish different parts of a song takes time and practice. Ask any working musician how much time they spend just listening to music and you might be surprised. There are dedicated music theory courses called "ear training", simply for strengthening your music listening skills. I remember in college taking a full year of courses on it and quickly realized my listening weaknesses, almost immediately. It was a wake up call for me because I'd never been tested like that before, this time literally to pass a class! I could always mimic music from ear, but didn't have the vocabulary or fine tuned skills to explain and discuss what I heard with other musicians. Zoom ahead many years later and I can say with unwavering certainty, this is one of the most fundamental abilities I rely on for making a living as a musician. I sometimes think back on those days of struggle and just smile to myself for getting through it. I now can fully appreciate the importance of ear training, and am supremely thankful to have the ability.
An analogy to explain the process of training your ears I like to use, is a FILTER.
Think of your ears as a filter, such as a water purifier for example. Water passes through a series of layers, each specifically designed to capture common particles through a chemical process. Well music isn't much different, and you already naturally filter and separate parts of songs subconsciously.
Take for instance the last pop song you heard. Ask yourself what your ears gravitated toward? I would put money that it was the main vocal melody, and this is all by design. Vocals no matter what genre, rudimentarily break down to words mixed with rhythm and/or melody. Our ears are already ear trained from birth to pick up on words because that's how we communicate. Even if you listen to song vocals from a language you don't know, it's still the most natural thing to tune to, try it. Just to make all this easier on the listener, studio engineers have become experts at mixing pop songs perfectly for your ears' pleasure, with the vocals served front and center on a silver platter, it's almost guaranteed to be the loudest part of the mix.
The next layer your ears notice, I suspect, would be some sort of instrumental hook or catchy repetitive phrase that occurs at least a few times in the song. Similarly to the vocals, the hook is another genius trademark of pop songs. It can be short or long, melodic or percussive, in your face or far in the back...basically any flavor you can think of, as long as it does its magic.
A strong unforgettable phrase that's highly repeatable plus a melody sung on top of it that gets stuck in your head totally wins the day. Signed...sealed...delivered.
Now of course, these are all generalizations (that for the most part stick), but songwriting is much more complex than simply putting ingredients into a bag and shaking it up. I would never trivialize the process for myself or any other songwriter out there.
So get to the drums already!...OK, almost there.
Keep using one of those pop songs from before, but this time pick out each individual instrument (we're just adding more layers): bass, guitars, keys, drums, horns, strings, backing vocals, extra percussion, samples, etc. If it's a heavily produced song, the music might not have traditional sounding instruments, but the same exercise and thought process applies. A simple way to check yourself is search for the song on YouTube, either the isolated tracks, or perhaps someone covering specific parts on their respective instrument. Ask yourself, how close was I in isolating the specific part? If this is a challenge, keep testing yourself with other songs, you'll get the hang of it. It took me a lot of practice and effort to get to the point I'm at today, and I still have much more room to improve.
You made it this far, congrats! Now that the path has been laid out, lets get to the matter at hand...drums (the final layer).
It's time to break down the drum sounds into each piece of the kit: bass drum, snare drum, tom-toms, cymbals (crash, hi-hat, ride, china, splash, gong), wood block, cow bell, etc, etc, etc.
This last layer is going to get sifted through a fine sieve, but don't get overwhelmed because you have one massive advantage, which is repetition. Drum beats are really nothing more than predefined patterns, and most take from already heavily established templates. If you can count to 4, you can figure out the beat. So that's where to start, try and count the beat out loud with the song, and listen very carefully to where it cycles. Literally say 1, 2, 3, 4 over and over and over again until it matches the beat. A big hint is the snare drum probably hits on beats 2 and 4, and the bass drum probably at least partially hits on beats 1 and 3. So overall there's a boom (1), chick (2), boom (3), chick (4), back and forth thing happening. This is called backbeat and pretty standard in music. Locking down the bass drum and snare hits really establish the boundaries or edges of the beat, allowing the rest be filled in.
If you're screaming at your phone or computer right now asking, how the hell do I even distinguish between the different drum sounds, let me offer some help. Each part of the drum kit has a different timbre, or sound characteristic. A piano and tuba are easy to identify because they have such extreme different and unique timbres. Drums can certainly be more challenging to discern since there could potentially be a dozen drum sounds, many very similar sounding, occurring in a single song. But again, think about repetition and frequency, those are you best friends. Once you can lock down the bass drum and snare hits (mostly), dig deeper into what is happening in-between them. Most likely something repetitive on a cymbal, which is going to be much higher in pitch, or how low or high the sound frequency is. Every drum or cymbal lives in it's own natural predefined frequency range. For instance, the bass drum has a very low pitch that will never hit the frequencies a crash cymbal can make. So with a little work and patience, your ears will start relating timbre, pitch, and occurrence to particular pieces of the kit. It's merely a matter of organizing all the sounds together and how they relate to each other, and this will come with practice, practice, practice...three of my favorite words.
One big elephant in the room that I should clarify is, not every song can be counted in 4. Music that has four beats per measure is called standard time or common time, because they're super common and standard. However, if the song you've been thinking of this whole time is "Money" by Pink Floyd, then you're flat out of luck and probably driving yourself crazy. That song is famously in 7, meaning you need to count to 7 per cycle, or measure. This is a great unconventional example because just like everything in music, nothing is really set in stone.
- closing thought -
Breaking down the process of deconstructing a song's drum beat in a pragmatic way was my goal for this post. Musicians do this all day every day, most likely without thinking much about it. We constantly isolate certain parts in our minds so that we can practice and work on them. All the filter layers mentioned above are exercised on the regular, and just like a muscle, they get stronger over time. Start simple, pick apart drums that are clear to you, then dig deeper and deeper until you cover all the sounds you hear. Try it on songs you know, try it on songs you've never heard, try it on songs from genres you're not familiar with, just try.