Learning drums is an amazingly fun challenge, and if you have a good ear and learn the basics you can start a snowball effect and learn many songs!
If you learn the ability to pick out drum parts from the actual recording not only can you learn way more songs, your drumming will be way more accurate because you aren’t relying on having someone else teach you the part.
This methodology of learning by ear is called ear training. Ear training is probably one of the most essential tools that a musician can learn, regardless of their instrument.
It is the tool that allows you to learn beats and fills just by listening to them.
Let’s go through some essential steps to learn how to play by ear.
Try and comprehend what part of the tune you’re listening to. Each song can be divided into sections in order to make it easier to comprehend when playing it back.
Are you listening to an intro? A verse? Chorus? Bridge? Pre-chorus? Outro? Breakdown? Solo?
You may have heard of these terms or maybe a few of them escape you. Let’s break a couple of the terms down.
A chorus is probably the most memorable part of the song. There is usually a build-up to the chorus.
The verse is the part of the song where the lyrics are more influential. It is usually the storytelling part of the song since usually in each verse the lyrics are different.
Let’s take a simple song like In My Life by the Beatles.
If I wanted to learn this structure by ear I would listen to the song and take notes. Here are my notes so you can compare to yours.
It is also common to simply put A, B, C, D as different song structures. That method is fine, however it is important to describe the sections so that you are very clear on them.
So once you’ve made your map of how the song is structured you want to start learning the individual parts.
Let’s continue with this song. The first section, the verse, is a linear drum pattern that is maybe not the most standard way of playing drums. But it is a very creative and iconic beat!
Which drums do we hear in this verse section? I hear a bass drum, hi-hat, and snare drum.
Notice how when the beat repeats, how long does it take for it to repeat?
I can hear it repeat in the following way—
… 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
There are pla -ces I re – member,
So every time we come back to one we hear the beat start over again.
That beat starts with the bass drum, is followed by a snare and then another quick bass drum. Then there is space and then we have three consecutive notes by the hi-hat, snare and bass drum.
Even if you can’t read music, you can click the play button to follow along with the written drum beat below.
The bottom note is a bass drum, the upper note is a snare drum and the hi-note with an ‘x’ is a hi-hat.
If reading this is still too difficult for you check out our lesson on reading drum music.
Now what drums do we hear in the chorus section? For the first part, I hear a cymbal playing 7 steady notes.
Then right after the seventh note, we have a quick drum fill on the snare. If you listen you should be able to pick it out. Here it is written down.
The cymbal note is with an ‘x’ and the snare are the notes in the middle of the music staff.
After these cymbal notes and drum fill we go into a simple beat between the cymbal, bass drum and snare drum.
The cymbal note is with an ‘x’, the snare notes are the notes in the middle of the music staff, and the bass drum are on the bottom of the music staff.
The beauty of the internet is that with almost any song you can type it in on YouTube and there probably is a drum cover.
However, in order to learn by ear we really need to not cheat in this way. We need to make time to try and learn by ear, even if it is a challenge and even if you don’t always succeed.
The next time you have a song that you want to learn by ear, try and pick out some of the parts by yourself before looking for transcriptions or covers.
Some songs are just too fast to hear in the beginning. For this I recommend downloading a program to slow down the songs and pick out the notes that way.
If you have a digital audio workstation (DAW) you can do this easily. If not, you can download a program called ‘audacity’ for free and it will let you slow down the song without changing the pitch.
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.