Are drummers mathematicians?

By Steve Judd, Karnivool

Drum Expo 2013: "The short answer is no. The thought alone conjures up images of disheveled, spectacled men in woolen suits solving algebraic equations on a blackboard. The kind of equations that evoke fear into anybody whose journey in mathematics peaked at long division. That is not to say mathematics doesn't play a role here, of course it does. Enough to consider oneself an expert on the subject...? Well, that may be a stretch.

"The simple task of keeping time in 4/4 really only requires the numerical skills of a toddler. If you can count to 4, you can uphold your end of the bargain. If you can count to 8, well, you are worthy of distinction! However, a slightly more advanced grasp on the subject is vital for those that wish to progress past the point of "1 2 3 4!".

"To a lot of musicians (and as far as most progressive rock/metal is concerned), there is much more appeal in working outside the realms of straight fours. Here, we are able to open up a world of musical avenues where the possibilities are infinite.

"Enter the polyrhythm...

"Now, with the basic rock groove conquered and your ability to count all the way to four with an unflappable level of confidence at an all time high, you decide it's time to venture out into unchartered territory. Polyrhythms! Simply put, a polyrhythm occurs when two (or more) differentiating rhythms are played concurrently. Murky water indeed...

"Once you start looking into subdivisions and the multitude of ways in developing rhythms, you begin to realise the importance of maths (albeit quite basic) and the part it plays in the world of drumming.

"Without delving too much into the theory of it, a common time beat or 4/4 beat is made up of 4 quarter notes per bar of music. Each quarter note can be subdivided into:
- 2 1/8 notes per beat (8 8th notes per bar)
- 4 1/16 notes per beat (16 16th notes per bar)
- 3 1/8 note triplets per beat (12 1/8 notes per bar) etc...
Noted, these are just a few simple examples, but you start to see where we are heading. The need to be able to count in these subdivisions is imperative both to playing and understanding polyrhythms.

"Eg: 3 over 4
3's - x---x---x---
4's - x--x--x--x--

"The 3's are written here as 1/4 notes, making it a bar of 3/4 (@ 120bpm). The value of the 4's are dotted 1/8 notes meaning the 3/4 time signature has been subdivided into 16ths and the accent shifted to give it a 4/4 feel (1 E + A 2 E + A 3 E+ A) If you wanted to take it further, you could then treat the accented notes as a 4/4 at a different tempo (160bpm) and further subdivide that rhythm creating an entirely different way to change the 'feel' and continue messing with the rhythm.

"Venturing out further still, if I were to employ the same theory as above to play a 5/4 over a 4/4 at 120bpm, I would need to work out how to divide the 4 notes (of the 4/4) and find the matching tempo to give me 5 notes for my bar of 5/4.

"Dividing 5 by 4 gives me the amount of notes I have to fit in the same space to play the opposing rhythm. So for every quarter note played in 4/4, the equivalent of 1.25 notes need to be played to equal 5/4. Multiplying 120bpm x 1.25 gives you your new tempo of 150bpm. Playing 4/4 @ 120 over 5/4 @ 150bpm. These types of cross rhythms are just another way to keep things interesting. Ok, so its not quite up there with the Pythagorean theorem, but still, it reveals the relevance mathematics has in drumming and how even an elementary understanding on the subject can go a long way.

"All that aside, even the brightest of minds may fail to deliver when seated upon the throne (of a drum set). Let's not forget the importance of 'feel' over all else. Being that drums are probably the most primitive of all instruments and that rhythm was once a form of communication in itself (depending on your belief system), its appeal is in how it resonates within us as individuals and how it reaches us at an almost primordial level. If it doesn't feel good, why would we listen to it!

"If we start to over-think what we do, it is usually the most vital element of playing, our 'groove', that tends to suffer most. As Bruce Lee put it, "Don't think, feel". And he was one of the greatest drummers ever, so who can argue with that! In all seriousness, that is the direction I take when it comes to my own playing but there needs to be a balance struck between the two.

"Without some mental investment into what we are doing, we will be forever grounded as players and limited by what we think we already know. In order to move forward, we need to find ways that continue to challenge us and help us to push forward. Adding maths to the equation is one way to do so...

"Ok, so that was a horrible pun. I have been known to make bad pun jokes, but I am not a comedian. In a handful of words, I would have finished writing this article, but I am not a writer. I am a drummer and as such, I am able to incorporate some basic elements of mathematics into what I do. I can pass as a drummer, but the probability of pigs flying is of greater likelihood than trying to fool anyone into believing I am a mathematician!"

To discover more about Karnivool, visit their official website.

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