Week 3 – Drums

No instrument has longer history than the drums. Drums are found in almost every culture worldwide and are known to have existed since at least 6000BC. Drums have strong ceremonial, sacred and symbolic associations. Drums have in the past been used for signalling of meeting, dangers sending messages etc… The talking drums of Africa imitate pitch patterns of language and can transmit messages over many miles. Shallow frame drums serve as ritual instruments for shamans throughout Central Asia, Siberia and some native tribes of North America. In Europe, The Timpani were associated with royalty as late as the 17th Century. The Tambourine was traditionally a woman’s instrument in Islamist cultures, ancient and prehistoric times and in medieval Europe. The snare (side drum) was and still is used in European infantry regiments however, it used to be used not just as an instrument but to code instructions to soldiers during battles.

The first drum kits were assembled in the 1800’s when the development of the bass drum pedal enabled all of the basic percussion instruments (snare, bass drum and cymbals) to be played simultaneously by a single person. In the late 1920’s jazz drummers in the nightclubs of New Orleans began using the drum kit to provide creative accompaniment for other jazz musicians. The set expanded with tom-toms, Turkish and Chinese style cymbals, and the hi-hat cymbal which to this day remains one of the most important innovations.

Over the years many new techniques have been developed by different artists, for example:

Gene Krupa – Jazz drummer who featured tom-toms predominantly in his playing during the 1930’s and established drums as a solo instrument.

  • Max Roach – Another great jazz drummer who tuned his drums higher and emphasized rhythm with use of cymbals (particularly the ride) rather than the bass drum thus, allowing more flexible use of the rest of the kit.
  • Louis Belson – Jazz drummer who established/revived the use of the two bass drums (double kick) in the 1950’s.
  • Through the 60’s and 70’s recording techniques improved with greater amplification of instruments from rock music enabling drum kits to be played louder without overpowering other instruments. Drums were made of stronger materials and drum heads were made more durable with plastic replacing calf skin. More modern kits began to emerge which were bigger consisting of four or more toms as well as a variety of auxiliary percussion instruments.
  • The 80’s brought electronic drums (or MIDI drums) which are now more often used for recording or low volume practice.

For this weeks composition only drums were used. The piece starts out fairly minimal but builds up energy as it progresses and more layers of drums are introduced. In all, we hear 3 different drum kits in the piece (3 instances of EZdrummer – 2 drumkits from hell and 1 standard rock kit) which are all playing together towards the end of the piece.

Drumkit from Hell (left) and Standard Rock Kit (right)

Drumkit From Hell Standard Rock Kit

Also, there are some sampled world percussive drums (Darbuka and Indian Tabla) which are played through NI’s Kontakt and a TR909 kick which comes in from 01:24 just to beef it up some more.

Darbuaka (left) and Indian Tabla Drums (right)




The piece is mainly in 4/4 time signature from beginning to end although some polyrythmical elements are introduced at 01:24 (snare, stick and hi hat) layered over the main underlying time signature of 4/4. The drums are mainly programmed using a midi keyboard and edited, although a hi-hat loop was used for the hi-hats which we hear from 00:21. On these Hi-hats which we hear from 00:21 til the end of the piece there is a live performance element in the form of a sweeping EQ effect which was done using live automation of a ‘notch’ on the EQ of the Hi-Hats.

EQ Performance

EQ Performance

Below is a link to this weeks piece:



Chatto, A (1996). Brief History of Drumming. http://www.cadre-online.ca/drumhistory.html – accessed 25/03/2014.

Randall, JA. (2001). “Evolution and Function of Drumming as Communication in Mammals”. American Zoologist 41 (5): 1143–1156. doi:10.1668/0003-1569(2001)041[1143:EAFODA]2.0.CO;2.

Reed, Ted (1997). Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer, p.33. ISBN 0-88284-795-3.

Toussaint, Godfried (2013). The Geometry of Musical Rhythm, Chapman & Hall/CRC.

Wolfe, J (2011). History of Drumming. OC Drum School. http://ocdrumschool.com/history-of-drumming – accessed 26/03/2014.


Week 2 – Serialism

Serialism is method of composition that uses a series of values (frequencies/tones) in order to manipulate different musical elements (Griffiths, 2001).  It is a method to create atonal music (music that is not any particular key of any particular scale or mode).  Probably the most notable early pioneer of serialism was Arnold Schoenberg who invented the twelve tone technique, however, there were other composers at the time who were also trying to establish serialism as a movement towards post-tonal thinking (Whittal, 2008).  The twelve tone method was actually preceded by other “free” methods of atonal composition from 1908-23, however, since Schoenberg developed the twelve tone technique it has been the most widely used technique in serialism composition.  Schoenberg’s idea was to develop a technique which treated each of the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale with equal importance thus, creating atonality as opposed to earlier classical methods of composition which gave greater importance to some notes over others creating a tonal centre/key/harmonies.

By the 1950’s the twelve tone technique was used all over the world.  Some of the most well-known serialism composers include Webern, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Dallapicoola, Ernst Krenek and Ricardo Malipiero.  Some extended the technique to control aspects other than tone/pitch such as duration, method of attack etc…  Some attempted to subject all elements of the compositional process to the serial process.  It was this exploration that gave birth to “Klangfarbenmelodie” (German for sound-colour-melody).  “Klangfarbenmelodie” basically involves splitting musical lines between different instruments for a purely serial way of experiencing different timbres/attacks/durations…..everything different, one after another.

The way the twelve tone technique works is by creating an ordered arrangement of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  The first row can be created as chosen by the composer.  There are then 3 derivatives which can be gain from this original row to give 4 tone rows in total.  Rules for this technique are as follows:

  1. The ordering of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale is without regard to octave placement.
  2. No note is repeated in the row.
  3. The row may appear in inversion (prime form in reverse order), retrograde (prime form with the intervals inverted so that a rising minor third becomes a falling minor third, or equivalently, a rising major sixth), or retrograde-inversion (inverted row in retrograde), in addition to its “original” or prime form.
  4. Any of the four rows may begin on any note i.e. they can be freely transposed.
  5. When composing, the tone rows must be used from beginning to end without repetition before returning to the start of the row and/or transposing the tone row.

For my composition I used 4 “layers” of tone rows; an original, original inverted, retrograde and retrograde inverted:

D# D A C F B E G A# C# G# F#

F# E B D F G# C# G C D# A# A

D# E A F# C# G D B G# F A# C

F# G# C# A# G E B F C A D D#

It’s not strictly Klangfarbenmelodie although sometime sounds a bit like it; the 4 “layers” are played by 4 different instruments.  Tension is built and released throughout the piece through the varying velocities and timbres of different notes and instruments.  At times it is sparse with long sustaining notes (relaxing) and at other times very busy with clusters of notes and fast lines (more energetic, tense).

A link to this weeks composition is below:


Frankel, J (2005).  www.jamesfrankel.com/Serialism.ppt .  Accessed – Wed 19th Feb 2014.

Griffiths, Paul. 2001. “Serialism”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, 23:116–23. London: Macmillan Publishers.

Magnuson, P (2013).  SOUND PATTERNS.  A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture, Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music.  http://academic.udayton.edu/PhillipMagnuson/soundpatterns/microcosms/serialism.html .  Accessed Wed 19th Feb 2014.

Whittall, Arnold. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Serialism. Cambridge Introductions to Music. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-86341-4 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-521-68200-8 (pbk).

Week 1 – Drones and Modes

Hello.  Each week this blog will focus on a different topic for a compositional study and critical/reflective discussion.  Beginning this week with; Drones and Modes.

In music a drone can be defined as “a sustained tone, usually rather low in pitch, providing a sonorous foundation for a melody or melodies sounding at a higher pitch level” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014).  Use of different modes of scales over a sustaining drone is a way of shifting tonality in a piece of music in order to shift between different emotions in a piece of music which are contrasting and interesting for the listener.  Scales can be defined as “a set of notes with a particular arrangement of whole and half steps” (Hall, 1992) e.g. Major, Minor etc…  Modes can be defined as “scales derived from Major and Minor scales” (Hall, 1992).  There are seven diatonic modes (Ionian/Major, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian/Minor, and Locrian).

For this week’s compositional study I have chosen to create a drone based around a root note of C.  My method, in order to create a drone that was interesting and evolving, was to create a weave using different layers of FM synthesis sounds.  FM synthesis was advantageous due to its ability to create long evolving timbres with interesting noise patterns and metallic qualities.  After layering several patches to create an evolving drone full of interesting textures, all layers were further enhanced through the use of volume automation in order to slowly bring different layers to prominence at different times and keep the drone constantly evolving.  Another advantage of FM synthesis was that it was possible to further evolve the drone through ‘automation’ of note velocities, as this radically alters the timbre of some FM synth patches creating interesting results.  The tonality of the drone is heavily rooted on C with very little additional tonal harmonic content but, plenty of nice noise textures thus, clearly defining the key of C, over which to experiment with the diatonic modes.  The synth used to create the entire (6 layers of) drone sound was Native Instruments FM7 (Pictured below).

FM7 Drone

Over the drone ambient melodies were played through an electric guitar, which was double tracked in order to cut through the synth layers, heavily compressed to allow long sustaining of notes and drenched in loads of reverb to give a big atmospheric sound.  The piece goes through the following modes in order; Aeolian/Minor, Phrygian, Lydian, Phrygian and finally, back to Aeolian/Minor.  The modes are explained below:

Aeolian/Minor – The saddest of scales, most often used to express sorrow and pain.

Phrygian – Derived from the major scale by lowering the second, third, sixth and seventh notes by ½ a step (semitone).  Known for having a flamenco/Spanish sort of flavour.  Often used by fusion and speed metal players.  Sounds kind of sinister in the context of this piece.

Lydian – Derived from the major scale by raising the fourth note ½ a step (semitone).  The mode sounds ‘light’ and ‘airy’.  Used a lot by artists such as Vai, Satriani and Eric Johnson etc…  Lends itself well to Jazz, rock and fusion styles.  In the context of this piece it is used for a few bars in the middle and sounds in contrast to the rest of the track much lighter, more positive and less dark.

Here is a link to this weeks composition:


Brent, Jeff, with Schell Barkley (2011). Modalogy: Scales, Modes & Chords: The Primordial Building Blocks of Music. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4584-1397-0

Cann, Simon (2010).  Becoming a Synthesizer Wizard.  Frequency Modulation Synthesis.  P128-135.  Cengage Learning.  ISBN-13:  978-1-59863-550-8.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2014).  Drone (Music).  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/171795/drone.  Accessed – Fri 7th Feb 2014.

Erickson, Robert (1976). Sound Structure in Music. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02376-5.

Hall, Steve.  Manus, Ron (March, 1992).  Scales and Modes for Guitar.  Alfred Music.  ISBN-13: 978-0882845456.

Van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.