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10 STEPS FOR LEARNING ANY DRUM PART BY EAR

by Danny Cox, 12th February 2020

100 YEARS AGO, EARLY METHODS OF RECORDING AUDIO WERE ONLY JUST EMERGING.

Before then, the only means of ‘recording’ music was written notation. So, before the 20th century, almost all musicians– in the Western hemisphere at least– would learn to read music. Today, Spotify, YouTube and a number of other music streaming services make it possible for us to access millions of tunes on a magic rectangle in our pocket. For free. Quite a different scene.

While music notation is still useful, the possibility of learning music by ear is greatly increased in the modern world. Drummers tend to rely even less on notation than other instrumentalists, due largely to the fact that we don’t have to worry about playing in key. In fact, most drummers spend the beginning years of their development learning by ear and then pick up notation once they’ve developed some skills. This may or may not be true for you: some people love to learn visually and that’s great. Either way, developing the skill of learning drum parts by ear is invaluable.

Here’s how to do it, in 10 simple steps.

1. Identify Something To Work On
The first thing you’re going to need to do is find a drum part (or a whole tune) that you’re interested in learning to play. There are millions out there, so what I suggest you do is find a drum part you like, in a tune you like. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with it, so it’s useful if it doesn’t make you want to throw up.

2. Assess Challenge
Once you’ve found a potential candidate (and remember, this could be just a short phrase, a whole tune or anything inbetween), you’re going to want to make a loose judgment about its difficulty. Does it sound impossibly fast and complex, or is it so easy that your granny could play it? Likely, it sits somewhere between these two extremes.

What you’re looking for is something that’s in the middle range. A ‘5 out of 10’ on the challenge-o-meter is something that you think you’ll be able to play, but will challenge you. This is the sweet spot, and it’s where you’ll experience optimum skill development.

3. Listen
Now, it’s time to listen. It’s probably time to listen A LOT. If you’re operating at that 5-out-of-10 challenge level then you’re likely to need to listen dozens of times to whatever selection of audio you’ve chosen.

How do you know when you’ve listened enough? You’ve listened enough when you can remember the sound.

4. Remember
You’ve probably had the experience of remembering the words to a song. We’re very good at remembering words, because remembering words (or something like words) kept us alive when we lived in the jungle. You’ll be listening to a song and then, at some point, you know that you can sing along without making a fool of yourself. What you’re looking for now is that same experience but with drums instead of words.

If you stop the audio and try to remember the drums, what happens? Can you play it back in your mind? If not, you haven’t listened enough and you need more time: how are you going to play it yourself if you can’t remember it?

5. Slowing It Down
Once you can remember the sound, you might think you’re ready to play. If it’s an easy drum part that you’re studying, you might be. But it’s very often useful to take the extra step of slowing it down first, in your head.

Play the sound in your head. Now play it slower. And slower. And slower.

6. Imagining
You may be thinking at this point, ‘am I ever going to actually play the drums?’ Believe me: I get it. If you get impatient, go ahead and play something you can already play on the drums. Then when you’re ready, come back and continue this process.

After you’ve let off some steam, play the audio in your head, again, slowly. Now imagine yourself playing the part on the drums. You may have been doing this already, but it is a different mental process to just imagining the sound. Now you’re imagining what it feels like– and perhaps what it looks like– to actually play the part you’re trying to learn. Pretty cool, huh?

7. Sketching
Okay, okay, now you can play drums. But wait! Don’t go straight into trying to perform. What you need to do first is give yourself the opportunity to make a complete and utter MESS.

You may be familiar with the process of sketching from the visual arts. The painter will head out to the landscape they wish to paint and, using a pencil, draw rough outlines of the shapes they see. They’re not painting yet. We can do something very like this, by allowing ourselves to play the drums version of that ‘rough outline’. You may well wish to go back to imagining or listening many times as you work on sketching in order to compare what you’re playing to the original source material.

8. Practising
Once you have the part correct, now it’s time to ‘program it in’, so to speak. And you’re going to want to do this slowly.

We tend to like to play fast. When you catch yourself playing too fast: never mind, start again. How do you know if you’re playing too fast? You’re likely to be playing the part differently to how it sounds on the record when you’re playing too fast. The problem with this is precisely that you’re now playing something else. This can lead to big problems down the line, when you’re performing the song on stage and ‘slipping into’ all kinds of phrasings that are different to what you intend to play, simply because you ‘slipped into’ them during practice and made these alternate phrasings into easy options.

Be deliberate. Check the audio often. Go slowly, and play what you mean to play.


9. Bringing It Up To Speed
In time, if you practice effectively, the new drum part will begin to feel easy. This is the ONLY TIME to consider speeding up. Speeding up adds challenge. If something is already challenging, then speeding up is highly likely to produce bad results. So, be patient. When you’re patient, you’ll practise effectively (that is, at a slow enough tempo to play the part correctly). When you practise effectively, what you’re playing will become easier and easier. When it feels as easy as walking or talking, you can consider speeding up.

Speed up gradually. Monitor the level of challenge as you do. You want to stay in that sweet-spot, in which you’re always able to play correctly as you introduce challenge.

Once you reach the tempo of the tune you were studying from, congratulations! You’ve learned the part!

10. Contextualising
There’s one final step, which is to bring the part into context. That context might be more of the tune in which you found the part, or it might be the rest of your drumming vocabulary. I recommend both.


It’s important to note that you’ll almost certainly benefit from moving back and forth between the steps above as you go through this process. If you need a break at any time, take a break. Play something else on the drums. Watch a video of a great drummer. Have a snack. If you memorize what you’re doing in each step then you’ll be able to pick up right where you left off.

Most importantly: enjoy!

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(c) Danny Cox 2020. All rights reserved.

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