As a drummer, you usually see content focused on your technique, speed, reflexes, and other essential material pertinent to your drumming skill. However, music is a puzzle; the more pieces we put together, the clearer the picture.
Unfortunately, the idea of songwriting with drums isn’t focused on much, which is ironic considering how many famous songwriting drummers there are! In this article, we will show you the basics and some tips on how to write a song as a drummer.
Play Songs and Actively Listen
As a drummer, you are already likely practicing specific songs or perhaps even a genre of music. So, regardless of the song’s speed, reset and listen to the song anew.
As you actively listen, write down how many measures are in the verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, and other parts. Some may be simple structures; others are more complicated.
Within these sections, we want to focus on what is happening. What is the feeling or vibe? What instruments are being used, and what is the singer or band trying to communicate? Besides the music, focus on the lyrics and the rhyme scheme if one exists. Get to know every aspect of the song!
Obviously, if you love complicated progressive rock or intense heavy metal, these may not be the best starting points. Those genres are good goals, but it helps to return to the styles that helped create them.
If you look at many well-regarded rock and metal bands, they often started with lighter and more pop-like styles. The goal is to reproduce the song you listen to, so the easier, the better.
Music is mimicry and repetition, and songwriting is no different. Many songwriters start out composing tunes that are very similar to whatever is popular. The first few songs you write will be the skeletons of known pieces, and your creative flair will give it the final unique signature.
The Doors, The Beatles, Procol Harum, and even modern metal bands commonly used or reversed classical music lines and called it a day! And hip-hop music is known for heavily sampling older funk and soul. So don’t stress originality at first; just actively listen and repeat.
Embrace Music Theory
If you have been studying drumming for a while, you may already know that each genre has unique rhythms. Rock, reggae, funk, and every style have certain meters, note lengths, and grooves underlying each song. Rhythm is not the only musical aspect that has patterns; all music is filled with them.
Find an affordable keyboard or guitar. If you wish to stick to percussion, even a xylophone next to the drum kit is helpful. Our songs are all about the intervals we use; in western music, that interval is a semitone. Each ascending and descending interval has a specific feeling and vibe; notice that larger intervals are hard for some vocalists!
Scales are what are created when we put multiple intervals together. The most important scale to learn is the major scale, from which all other western scales and modes can be derived.
The interval vibes carry over into the scales, and the one you use will determine the feeling of your song. The Circle of Fifths provides the major scales we can alter to get the blues, harmonic, pentatonic, and all other scales.
Chords are built from stacked notes, and of course, the intervals used will give the chord its final consonance or dissonance. Most pop and rock are made up of uplifting major chords and more melancholy minor chords. We use small helpings of diminished, augmented, and other dissonant chords. Just as the downbeat and upbeat drive a song, so does the tension and release of intervals and chords!
Chord Progressions are what we get when we put chords in specific sequences. There are only around 20 variations that are used over and over. Just like rhythms, a handful of patterns make up our music. Assuming you actively listen to songs, you should soon notice common chord progressions.
- I-IV-V: The common blues, rock, and pop three-chord standard
- I-V-vi-IV: The Axis of Awesome
- I-vi-IV-V: The doo-wop or soul progression
- vi-IV-IV: The sensitive progression
- ii-V-I: The jazz progression often played around the Circle of Fifths
- I-vi-ii-V: The standard jazz progression for lounge hits
- I-bVII-IV: The classic rock progression
- I-ii-iii-V: The classic rock ballad
The Circle of Fifths and the Nashville Number Chart are excellent papers to have in your songwriting practice area. That way, you can find any key and chord progression, start on the root chord, and plug the correct chords into the above patterns. There are more progressions, but the bulk of songs come from these.
Circle of Fifths
This info may seem a bit overwhelming, especially if you are new to drumming and music. But it won’t be if you take it one song at a time. Whatever song you are actively listening to, study its notes, scale, key, mode, and break it down. If you must, use Reddit or Google to ask others about these components. Usually, someone has already asked!
If you do not want to stay in the western style of music, we can break our notes into quarter or microtones. If you have ever been a drummer for world genres, you have likely encountered these unique notes. But even with these different spaces, the intervals and way they sound still affect the song’s overall vibe. Like a beat, a note is only as important as what comes before and after!
Copy Existing Song Structures and Formats
If you have been studying your songs, you will likely see a few major formats. Here A stands for verse, B for chorus, and C for bridge.
The last is one of the more common formats where we use a bridge section for a new feeling or solo. Some songs use the same chord progression for each section, while others switch, and in some cases, they modulate the key upward near the end of the song. However, be sure to stick to the same progression for each section. That way, the listener is aware of what part of the song they are on.
In some cases, genres even stay in an AAAA or completely repetitive format. For example, a lot of modern hip-hop has little musical variation, chord and structure-wise, and even heavy metal can often be played over nothing but a power chord drone. So there may not be much happening musically, but that is ok as the artists use that base to showcase drumming, vocal, or guitar skills.
Go back to the song(s) you are actively listening to and write out the skeleton. And this time, besides just marking the measures of the sections, add the main chords for each part. You can write this out on blank sheet music or sketch it yourself. What you have is a great way to start practicing your own tune. All this reverse engineering will eventually lead to a Eureka moment in music production.
Start Writing and Recording Your Song
If you wish, you can start writing off the basic bodies of other songs and add new melodies. As you build, do your best to make it sound different but without compromising the genre and style. Eventually, after listening to enough songs, you can start to branch off into your own ideas.
Sit down at the drums and start playing any simple groove, something you are good at with few fills and extra flair. You can then either start lyrically or with melody and chords. The keyboard or xylophone will help you pick out your melody of what may sound good. And a looper pedal, app, or recording device is tremendously useful here as it repeats while you try different scales and chord progressions.
Starting with the lyrics, humming, or singing can be a little harder as you then must find the right notes. But some people prefer this method. If you have trouble thinking of lyric ideas, the random page on Wikipedia is perfect. Simply click and roll the dice to see what topic to sing about, and of course, online rhyming dictionaries are essential! If you don’t have lyrics yet, you can substitute nonsense or syllables that stand out.
Regardless of the process you choose, it is very important to write down and even record your ideas. Any creative gold you strike in your head will easily be forgotten, so be sure to keep a note of it. If you have a DAW in your computer, it can be beneficial to use for chord progressions, bass lines, and other musical features. It even helps to find specific drumming grooves for you to copy!
How a Professional Songwriter Works
When a client comes to a songwriter and asks for a song, the artist first asks a couple of questions. What kind of feeling do we want, like excitement, fear, chill, psychedelic, or what is the vibe? They will then use specific rhythms, genres, and chord progressions to make some very basic demos, from which the client will choose.
The best musical ideas from the demos are then refined further by adding a specific melody, more chord modulation, drum fills and intros, deeper basslines, and essentially fattening out the song. And the final piece is listened to by multiple people to be sure it doesn’t sound too familiar, as even the best musicians copy inadvertently. George Harrison and “My Sweet Lord” is a famous example.
A professional songwriter doesn’t have to be in the right emotional or physical setting to compose a song. They simply rely on the repetition of age-old patterns and musical trends to build their final product. This is advice any level of musician can use, study your songs and their sequences, and simply repeat the process. Start small with simple grooves, lyric ideas, chord progressions, and only after you have some structure should you worry about refining.
If you are a drummer in a pop band, you will want to write songs that showcase the other musicians. You will often just be the glue that holds them together, like how Phil Collins or Don Henley approach songs. Neil Peart takes a mix of both rock glue, and progressive skill, and Frank Zappa composed some insane pieces for drummers like Terry Bozzio. It is up to you how much you wish to feature percussion in your final song.
And some drummers like Questlove take the songwriting process to the next level with mixing, engineering, and record production. If you have the itch to create an entire album of your own material, with today’s technology, it can be done. With active listening and learning all the patterns of music theory, you can take your thoughts and ideas as a drummer and write your own songs! Many drummers before you have done the same!