Music As A Language: How To Internalise New Patterns


Playing a new pattern with the music in front of you, or while watching someone else is one thing. How do we internalise that groove or fill so that we can recall it from memory?

Music as a Language

At this point it is essential to compare learning the drums, or in fact any musical instrument, to learning a new language. Even to how we learn new words in our native language.

Unless we connect new words to our vocabulary web, there will be connection to use them in our everyday dialogue.

Using this model, we imagine the new fill that we have just spent half an hour studying. How do we connect that fill to what we can already play to be able to recall it when we are jamming or performing?

Rather than being on the tip of our tongue, a new fill literally needs to be on the tip of our sticks! While it takes a while to be able to recall new words to use in context and, perhaps more crucially, the confidence to use those words in context, it takes time and repetition to be able play a fill on command.

It is vital to be compassionate towards yourself. Remembering that learning new words in our native tongue is a lot easier than learning new words in a foreign language. With our native language, we already have the building blocks, the framework of sounds, the alphabet from which all our words are derived. Language at its most basic level is movements of the larynx and vocal cords to produce combinations of sound that differ subtly. Learning a foreign language is more difficult because the fundamental movements of the larynx, the building blocks beneath the words and alphabet, are different to our mother tongue. Learning the drums is equally complex because here the movements involve many more muscles in our arms and legs.

If You Can Say It, You Can Play It

Something I have noticed while teaching is that if a student can count or sound the pattern out then they will be able to play it. If they are unable to count or ‘say it’ then they will find it much harder to play it. The reason so many of us hold tension in our jaw is because thinking using words actually involves the laryngeal muscles moving as if we were speaking! Even when we are not speaking, if we are thinking in words, we are speaking silently.

Perhaps this follows true with learning music? Since for almost everyone, the primary instrument is the voice, are we playing our musical instruments through our voice in some way?

In India, often students are not allowed to actually play the tabla drum for at least a year from commencing study. This year is spent studying and memorising the rars, the rhythmic patterns first interpreted by the voice, later to be played on the drum. These are sung for the first year, only after the focus has been achieved without the instrument is the student let loose on the drum. After teaching young children and beginners for fifteen years, you can imagine I have often considered this approach! Certainly during the crash, bang, wallop of early morning lessons!

The Whole Shebang, Right Off The Bat

Commonly, these days we receive not only one drum, but an entire kit right at the very beginning! And with not even a hint of singing the patterns we thunder right into wrangling out arms and legs to play complicated patterns. This is certainly fun and more engaging but it is worth presenting the comparison because it puts into perspective how the instrument has evolved and helps us understand how to progress without discontentment. The number one reason we get dishearten when learning something new is that we impose standards and timeframes on ourselves that are unrealistically high. These standards and timeframes are entirely artificial – how could we possibly know how long it will take us to succeed when our only measures of success are the achievements of others? Music is such a personal expression, we can only go so far emulating others. We have to play as ourselves and in order to do that, we need to go beyond preset patterns and concepts and start speaking as ourselves, just like we do when speaking to our friends. We rarely think about the words we use. We concentrate on what it is we wish to say and express that as clearly as we can.

Every Fill an Island

A new pattern is like a island discovered surrounded by ocean. We are familiar while we are there. We used a ‘map’, a book, a video, a tutor to get to that island, to be introduced to something new, something that we didn’t know before. Can we still locate that island without the map? Without the page in front of us, or the instructional video or the demonstration of our teacher? We have to plot our own course back to that island. To connect it to what we already know.

Shedding Light on the Web – Removing the Scaffolding

If we are learning a fill, it makes sense to combine that fill with a groove. But is that enough? How do we fully integrate the new pattern into our vocabulary?

Some fills stick very easily in the mind, and often this is because they have a musical element to them. We can either remember patterns using maths or music. Maths is fantastic for counting numbers of notes or using formulas to create new patterns. But not all permutations that we can come up with mathematically will sound good on the drum kit as musical phrases.

No matter how much we use our eyes to learn how to play mechanically, we have to learn to go by ear to be able to play musically.

A combination of conscious practice (routinely combining the fill with a set number of bars of groove) and unconscious practice (jamming without logic and seeking to throw the fill in as and when) are two approaches that work well in tandem. By repeating different situations where we can use the fill, perhaps committing to use it at a specific point in a song we are performing, we connect it to other patterns and musical contexts that we are already familiar with. By randomly accessing it will we are jamming, we let our broader subconscious awareness take over and integrate it deeper into our vocabulary.

Less is More, is Music

One good fill, played at exactly the right time, is more powerful, more memorable, than ten fills played at almost the right time.

Our patterns, our fills and grooves are our words. We use them to say what we want to say; to draw attention to ourselves and to support others. Most of the time as a drummer we are supporting others. We are supplying the rhythmic foundation upon which the rest of the band can relax and express themselves clearly and comfortably. There are times when we need to signal changes in the music, that is when we use fills. These are opportunities to draw attention to prepare audience and band for the change. That is the primary purpose of a fill. Spoken elegantly a well-placed fill can lift the entire performance. As the almighty dance drop teaches us, “the biggest cheers come from the things we don’t play.”

We are always communicating when we play. The more conscious we are of that communication and the more aware we are of the impact of our musical choices, the stronger we serve the song.

Find the fills that resonate with you and repeat them in different situations until they start to appear of their own accord. Then put them in their place. The right fill, at the right time, gets the loudest cheer and the broadest smiles. Less is more, is music.

The Method

Building up a new fill pattern

  1. Before you play anything, count the fill pattern out: 1 &a2e& 3e& 4
  2. Work out the sticking pattern for the fill ie. R RLRLR RLR R
  3. Play the pattern on the snare drum
  4. Play it again and loop it making the pattern flow and relaxing the hands
  5. Combine together with the first basic rock groove: 1 bar groove, 1 bar fill
  6. Play groove and fill together with a metronome at 70 bpm – sustain for 4 times
  7. Map the pattern around the kit simply; each beat on a different drum – play it round the kit
  8. Combine together with the first basic rock groove: 1 bar groove, 1 bar fill
  9. Play groove and fill together with a metronome at 70 bpm – sustain for 4 times
  10. Play fill round kit with 3 bars of more interesting groove on hi hat
  11. Play fill round kit with 3 bars of groove on hi hat, then play fill round kit with 3 bars of groove on ride
  12. Add crashes to your eight bar phrase.
  13. Play with a metronome at 70 bpm twice [16 bar phrase] – complete
  14. continuing study: build up speed, change groove, change fills (two different ones; one to move to ride, another to move back to hi-hat)

Breaking music down as a language, expanding improvisation and creativity, zooming out awareness.

Photo by Isaac Chou

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