Tabletop drummer

Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!
Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!

This post is a further exploration of one of the tricks mentioned in a grain of sand: coming up with a rhythmic idea devoid of any pitch content.

There is a legend, quite possibly not apocryphal, because the game of billiards was indeed one of his hobbies (another apparently being the collection of bathroom graffiti while on tours throughout Europe which he detailed in letters to his father), that Mozart would sometimes use the rhythmic pattern of the clicking of the balls in a break as the generation of rhythmic motives.

But, unless you’re a billiards or lawn bowling player (hmmm… shuffleboard would work too, wouldn’t it?!), you’ve undoubtably given into the urge to spontaneously tap out a rhythm on the tabletop of a diner while waiting for a 2 a.m. breakfast, or, possibly scat sing one like THIS. For this discussion, we’ll use my vocalized motive heard in that example.

The next step can be tough for someone without formal ear-training–but it’s doable with some effort and free software–and that’s turning that improvisation into written music notation. Either of those methods, however, depend on one basic skill: memory. Develop the skill of remembering exactly what you just improvised so you can repeat it exactly, over and over until you’ve sussed out the notation of the rhythm.

Developing this skill has other applications, too. There’s a technique used in certain types of pop vocals where the artist overdubs tracks with themselves singing in unison with what they sang before. I’ve heard pros who could do this matching every slight inflection and nuance of their first track’s performance for a 3 minute tune. Memory is a valuable skill.

Anyway, back to the task at hand.

Once you’re certain you’ve got your riff (motive) deeply embedded in your memory, you’re ready to write it down using the techniques you learned in Ear Training 101…or, if you prefer the software method, record it on your cell phone, then open the mp3 in your free Audacity software. I use Magix’s SoundForge Pro Mac 3, simply because I’ve used it for so long and my fingers do their thing without me having to think about it, but Audacity is great. Get it. It’s cross platform. And it’s FREE! Whichever audio editor you use, you’ll see your waveform, like this:

Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42.png

Now, I bet you “patted your foot,” either mentally or physically, when you improvised your rhythm. Breaking down this procedure a little bit further, let try to identify where those “foot pats” are in the waveform.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 A

The red lines in the above example represent where I felt the beat to be for my riff. That tells us a little, but not everything we need to know. To get closer, try tapping your foot exactly twice as fast as you listen to the motive. The blue lines in the following example show where those would fall.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 B

We’re almost there! Now, suppose we subdivide each of those in half. The green lines in the next example represent those subdivisions.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 C

Patience, patience, patience…almost done, almost done.

Now, suppose that the distance between red lines is a quarter note, then the four subdivisions would each be sixteenth notes, wouldn’t they? Mapping that out using music notation it would be 2 sixteenth notes, then a long note starting on the last sixteenth of that beat, then another short note halfway through the next beat, followed by two more sixteenth notes on the beat (like the opening). Looks like this in music notation:
Screenshot 2018-04-03 11.03.33

OK…that’s enough for now. We’ll continue this exploration next post by adding pitches, harmony, orchestration, tempi, and dynamics in Tabletop drummer part 2. We’ll also take a peek in a 3rd part at how this motive could be explored even further by developing into throughout time.

Look forward to seeing you next time.

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