When people think of drums, they typically imagine loud, directionless cacophony. Drums are frequently stigmatized as nothing more than beat-making devices in the back of a band instead of the dynamic instruments they’re destined to be.
Yeah, it’s easy to make a drum produce ear-splitting noise. But drums can create quiet and delicate sounds, too. Many styles of music require the drums to provide textures and tones instead of driving grooves. A drummer with the ability to play within a range of different volumes, or dynamics, can create patterns with many different layers blended together. But developing a wide dynamic range is much easier said than done.
Most drummers have no trouble playing at medium and high volumes. But if you asked a drummer to play quietly enough to hear an acoustic guitar over the drums, the drummer may really struggle to maintain timing and the flow of the music. Low-volume drumming requires exceptional technique, control, and awareness. Below are some of the essentials regarding dynamics and a how to practice expanding your dynamic range on the drums.
The Dynamic Spectrum
Let’s start by exploring the spectrum of dynamics. On written music, dynamics are notated with an abbreviation of an Italian word describing the relative volume of a passage. The most common dynamic markings (from quiet to loud) are pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff.
It’s important to note that all dynamic markings are relative, meaning there aren’t specific decibel levels associated with each. For example, a drummer playing their hardest will always be louder than an acoustic guitarist playing their loudest.
The marking pp is short for pianissimo and denotes very soft, quiet sounds. The marking p stands for piano and also denotes quiet sounds, but a little bit louder than pp. The difference between the two is equivalent to a hushed whisper directly into someone’s ear (pp) and whispering to someone from across a room (p).
The markings mp and mf stand for mezzopiano and mezzoforte respectively. These terms roughly translate to ‘medium-soft’ and ‘medium-loud’ and are commonly equated with a person’s typical speaking volume.
The marking f stands for forte, translating to ‘loud’ for musical purposes, or ‘strength’ in a more general sense. The marking ff stands for fortissimo, or ‘very loud.’ These dynamics equate to speaking loudly and yelling respectively.
In some cases, composers may mark a passage as ppp or fff (pianississimo and fortississimo) to really exaggerate the extremes of the dynamic spectrum. All of these differences in intensity and volume give contour and direction to music. Think of dynamics as shades of colors. An artist can create a nice painting with just three solid colors, but they can add much more depth and detail by mixing colors together to create different textures and hues.
Now that we have some functional terms, how do they apply to the drums?
Pushing the Extremes
To achieve varying dynamics, focus on the changes in stick height relative to volume. It’s much easier to play loudly when bringing the sticks way above the drum. Conversely, keeping the sticks very close to the drum makes it much easier to play quietly. The same holds true for cymbals. Bigger strokes = bigger sounds. Smaller strokes = smaller sounds.
To establish a dynamic range, begin by playing single strokes as quietly as possible on a snare drum or practice pad. Try to keep the strokes perfectly even. Gradually increase the volume until you can’t play any louder. Once you hit your loudest, try shrinking back down to playing as quietly as possible.
Changes in stick height correspond to differences in dynamics. To the right is an excerpt from one of Gary Chaffee’s books titled Rhythm & Meter Patterns. Chaffee demonstrates how particular stick heights and angles of attack roughly equate to specific dynamic levels.
The amount you raise each stick for each stroke increases as the volume grows, and decreases as volume tapers off again. Try playing 16th note exercise below to establish a broad dynamic range.
Drummers often employ a couple different techniques to achieve greater extremes on both ends of the dynamic spectrum. For playing exceptionally softly, try using very tiny strokes at the edge of the snare drum. To evoke louder sounds from the snare, try playing a rim shot by striking the center of the drum with the tip of the stick and the metal rim with the middle of the stick at the same time. The articulation and tone of a rim shot really cuts through sound and has become characteristic of a lot of backbeat-driven music.
Explore the dynamic range of cymbals, too. Start with small strokes at a low volume and gradually play louder. Striking a cymbal at different areas and with different parts of the stick creates many varying articulations and tones. For example, playing with the tip of the stick on a ride cymbal is far more articulate and a bit easier to control than digging into the cymbal with the side of the stick as if it were a crash. But “crashing” on the ride (playing with the side of the stick) brings out much more volume than using only the tip of a stick.
Dynamics on the Drum Set
Since drummers frequently play multiple drums and cymbals simultaneously, they need to consider the dynamics of each piece of the drum set to ensure no one part of the kit becomes overpowering. A good way to create variety and balance with dynamics is through the use of accents and ghost notes.
Accents are strokes that are played a little bit louder than your relative medium volume. The appropriate volume of an accent depends on its context. If a passage of music is marked as mf (medium-loud), then accented strokes should sound more like f or even ff. If a passage is marked as pp (very quiet), then an accent should not exceed mp. Accents are notated with a small angle bracket, typically marked above a note.
On the flip side, ghost notes are strokes that are played softer than your relative medium volume. Ghost notes are an excellent device to add depth and texture to grooves. When played properly, they’re more “felt” than heard. Ghost notes are notated by placing parenthesis around a note head.
Take the famous “Purdie Shuffle” as an example of using a range of dynamics within a groove. Purdie maintains a steady volume on the hihats and bass drum and creates depth by using dynamic extremes on the snare drum. Ghost notes, sitting dynamically beneath the hihats and kick, create a subtle bubbling effect that fills out tiny spaces in the shuffle pattern on the hihats. Purdie accents the backbeat on the snare drum, which solidifies the entire groove.
Pay careful attention to the variety of stick heights he uses to achieve different dynamics. The stick barely lifts more than an inch off of the drum for the ghost notes, but lifts about a foot off the drum for accents.
Below are a few more examples of dynamic extremes, as well as a balance between each extreme --
Very quiet drumming - Dave King with The Bad Plus - Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Loud drumming - Matt Garstka with Animals As Leaders - Tooth and Claw
Playing with both extremes - a solo by Benny Greb at Meinl Drum Festival 2012
Building Your Own Dynamic Control
Developing and utilizing a wide dynamic range takes lots of time and practice, but awareness is the first step to adding this dimension to your playing. To begin expanding your dynamic range, take the following steps --
Establish the quiet and loud extremes by playing as softly as possible, and then as hard as possible on just the snare drum.
Using single strokes, begin playing as quietly as possible and gradually increase volume until you can’t play any louder. Once at your loudest, gradually reduce volume until playing as quietly as possible again.
To expand dynamics of grooves, start by taking beats you already know how to play. Try playing a simple groove as quietly as possible and gradually increase volume until you can’t play any louder. Once at your loudest, bring it back down to a whisper again.
Begin mixing accents and ghost notes into grooves to create depth and variety.
Incorporating dynamics into grooves and fills helps give drum parts texture and more direction. Dynamics make drumming possess a much more organic feel compared to a drum computer or sequenced beats. The ability to play at a range of volumes gives your drumming a much more sophisticated sound. And who doesn’t want to sound like a classy, sophisticated drummer?