The Drummer’s Connection Between Sight and Sound

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a student that led me to some shocking conclusions about the drumming process. This student had focused so much on reading music and understanding note values that she was not actually hearing the notes she was playing. I then realized that some drummers are quite lucky to have the necessary senses instinctively kick in at certain times and that maybe I had taken a few things about the learning process for granted. I’ve always used my sense of sight to read music simultaneously with my ability to hear the sounds that resulted, so it was a slight adjustment for me to understand that this is not instinctual for all drummer. However, it makes perfect sense. So I had the same conversation with some of my other students, which further validated the need to explore ways of connection sight and sound.

First, I want to establish the goal we set that necessitated a further look at this topic. These are students who want to be able to sit down and play without having to read music or think too hard about what they are playing. They just want to sit down and jam, and have fun doing it. So to get this into motion, we want to build confidence in the following areas:

  • Understanding note values
  • Coordination
  • Ear training
  • Memory

Most musicians learn about note values pretty early on. As we seek to understand the musical process, it becomes important to understand what notes are being used to put musical ideas together, how longer spaces and shorter spaces between notes are created, and when certain things change during a piece of music. So we often spend time reading exercises and musical snippets that contain different notes, rests, dynamic markings, and other symbols. This shapes our visual understanding of music. It also lets up perceive music as a language. Just as we learn to read words in order to verbally communicate with one another, musicians must learn notes to musically communicate.

I began having my students begin this process by learning beats without even playing them. First, they read the notes off of staff paper and count the rhythms out loud to understand the rhythmic connection each note has to the next. In the example below, they would look at the beat and focus on the TOTAL rhythm, not the rhythm of each part. This way, you are training your ear to listen for the whole rhythm.


The next step is to play the rhythm on the drums while counting and making a conscious effort to hear the rhythm played out on each drum. This can be a longer process and requires a lot of focus in order to read the notes, develop a feel for them, and truly hear how the whole things sounds together. In the example below, we can clearly SEE how each color-coordinated part is counted. The goal in this exercise is to HEAR each part when the beat is played all together.


Once it starts to feel good, I urge my students to look away from the music. How did it work? Not well? Repeat the process a few times and see if it improves. It’s important to be resilient here. If it worked out, stop playing for 10 seconds. Without looking back at the music, start playing the beat again. Did you remember the groove? Once we are able to use these senses to develop musical ideas and remember them 10 seconds, 10 minutes, 10 days later, we have really achieved something special. This is when someone can truly sit down behind a drum set and JUST PLAY!


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