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How To Approach Learning A Song

Playing along to songs is one of the most exciting aspects to being a musician.  It is also the most important.  How do you learn how to keep time, support the music by playing what is best for the music, and know where to play intricately and where not to?  The answer is to play along with music.  When we play along with our favorite cover songs, we normally mimic what that musician is playing.  This is through repetition, careful listening to what the musician of our instrument is playing, transcribing, or obtaining a reading chart of that song.  However, as we become more sophisticated and experienced in our playing, we will have the ability to play along with songs without an instrument.  We are then fully capable of creating and interpreting what is best for the music!  This is always subjective as it involves your own approach, improvisation skills, and where you place phrases.  Yet, it is also objective as you must always keep in mind with playing what is most conducive and complimentary to the music.  As I have always told my students, being a drummer is not how fast you can play or your showmanship skills; it is about the groove, feel, and emotion you play with.  Further, it is about supporting the music and making others sound better in the band!  

What happens when you receive a track you have never heard of, and the producer expects you to create something with it?  You have never heard the song before and you have no reference whatsoever!  What do you do?  It can be nerve wracking, right?  Of course, but going over the following questions will help put you at ease and give you a sense of control over what you play.

What is the meter of the song?  Meter deals with time.  What is the tempo of the song? Normally, if you are given a lead sheet, it will state how many beats per minute at the top of the page.  If you are merely given a track, listen to other instruments.  Begin to tap your foot to create a pulse over the melody you hear.  Sing a pulse over what you are hearing.  Does it convey a quarter note feel?  Are the guitar chords playing a triplet sound?  Are there 16th note chords being played?  By listening continually, tapping a pulse, and singing the pulse, you will have a good indication on whether the song is in a slow, moderate, or fast tempo.

What is the style of the song?  Every style of music has its own language and vocabulary.  For instance, if you come from a jazz background, you will know that the swing is the key phrase.  If you come from an Afro-Cuban background, you will know that the rumba clave is the key phrase.  Identifying the style of music is important since every style encompasses its own musical characteristics.  For instance, jazz requires a light touch that can be loosely phrased, while rock involves an open fortified sound with minimal dynamics.  Knowing the style will give  

you insight on how to approach your instrument so you are playing within the context of that style.  

What is the instrumentation of the song?  The big band era of the 30s often involved a 25-35 piece band.  There were multiple sections in the big band like the rhythm section and horn section.  If you fast forward ten years later in the bebop era, the size of the bands significantly reduced as the music became more sophisticated and individualized.  Quintets, quartets, or even trios were common as jazz continued to progress.  The Beatles of The British Invasion of the 1960s influenced young garage bands of singers, guitarists, bassists, and drummers.  Tower of Power--a well known band that fused styles like soul, funk, rock, rhythm & blues, and jazz-- further innovated music by incorporating an entire horn section to the rhythm section.  It is important to identify what other instruments are played and observe how those instruments are being phrased.  This will help you develop the proper sound and voice to the song.  It will also help you learn how to have musical conversations with other musicians where you can mimic what they play on their instrument to your instrument! 

What is the time signature?  In most Western music, music is played in common time or 4/4 time.  However, as you broaden your horizons universally, you will see that this is not always the case.  Sambas and batucadas from Brazil are felt in 2/2 or in cut time.  Western African and folkloric music is felt in 6/8 time.  Nine/eight time is common in Turkish music.  It even gets more sophisticated with Indian music where you are dealing with various counting systems! What is the count of the music?  In a lead sheet, you will see this at the start of the form of the song.  If you do not have a lead sheet, carefully listen to the track.  Is the feel a duple meter like 4/4 time?  Is it a fluid feel like 6/8?  Count the music by identifying the down beat.  If you have trouble with this, listen to songs representing different time signatures.  “Yesterday” by The Beatles is a prime example of Paul McCartney playing the guitar in 4/4 time.  “Que Sera Sera” by Doris Day is an example of a Waltz feel in 3/4 time.  “Before You Accuse Me” by Eric Clapton is an example of a 12/8 blues shuffle.  The more you listen to songs (especially different styles), the easier it will be to count the rhythm to determine what time signature you are in.  The first step is to practice the discipline of listening!

What is the attitude of the music?  Pop music generally has an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, interlude, and outro sections.  The intro of the song will normally give you insight on the mood and emotion of the song.  In addition, by studying the lyrical sections, you can identify what the song is conveying.  Is the song about love?  War?  Peace?  Hostility?  By listening to the chord progressions of the guitar, vocal pitch, or studying the lyrical components, this will develop your understanding on the overall attitude of the music, which will give you insight on playing to the right mood of the music.  For instance, as a drummer, one of the most basic drum beats to play is a double time beat where the bass drum is on counts 1 and 3, the snare drum is on counts 2 and 4, and you are playing an 8th note pulse on the hi-hats.  Although this beat is generally associated with the rock style, it can be interpreted into a funk beat, light rock beat, country beat, or hip hop beat.  It all depends on the texture you use to play the beat.  More specifically, I would play the hi-hats loosely closed to play a trashy and open sound if the style was hard rock.  I would play the hi-hats tightly closed with various open hi-hat accents over the 8th note pulse to create a funk sound.  I may use a cross stick and play more delicately to create a country feel sound.  Understanding the attitude of the music is paramount to finding the right contrast and sound to your instrument so you are always playing what is best for the music!

As we learned, playing along to songs or with other musicians is the ultimate goal for every musician.  Technique, timing, coordination, and reading are all a means to an end.  The end for every musician is not to be the world’s most technical drummer or to shred on the guitar, but rather, to be an accompanying musician who knows how to individualize every situation of doing what is best for the music.  Answering these questions will give you tremendous insight with what you are playing and build your confidence so you are prepared for any kind of musical situation!

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