When I was asked to write this article, I thought I should write something about how good drummers all need to be at counting a band in to a song in any tempo or time signature, and at maintaining solid, grooving time throughout. Drummers need – as we all do in the modern world – a basic understanding of maths, but I reckon that even drummers who play math metal or are who are as technically and conceptually outstanding as Gavin Harrison don’t need much beyond a basic grasp of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

 If I were to say that drummers are master mathematicians, this might look like I was ignoring some pretty fundamental things about music and might appear to place us undeservedly on a pedestal. While drummers are necessarily experts (or at least competent) in rhythm and dynamics, the other parameters of music – harmony and melody – are also inherently mathematical, and more complicatedly so than our native land of rhythmic patterns. Music in Western cultures is all based on the harmonic series and 12 semitones deriving from the work of the (ancient) Greek polymath, Pythagorus; it is from these that all of our chords and tunes derive. Mastering harmony, especially in a fast-moving, tonally complex environment such as jazz, arguably requires a far great facility with mathematics than even the most intricate of prog metal drum parts.

 Musicians often say they have an affinity with mathematics, and that they really enjoy working with numbers. I know several people like this and, while I understand them up to a point, I’m much more drawn to – and, as a consequence, have spent three decades honing my craft with – words and music. I don’t love numbers. I’m pretty good at remembering my times tables and other basic arithmetical stuff, but I tend (perhaps oddly) to remember facts about maths, rather than any of the underlying principles. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead wrote in his book Drumming at the Edge of Magic, “rhythm and noise. That’s where drummers come from.” This is far truer to my experience of drumming than banging on (excuse the pun!) about time signatures and BPM (which we pretty much have to take for granted).

Through rhythm, movement and sound (our currency as drummers), we connect with the intangible. When we groove, band members and audiences get it. The air is alive as we engage with our surroundings, energizing the atoms and neutrinos in and between people in space and time. In this sense of being in touch with the make-up of the universe, we have a kinship with creative, exploratory mathematicians and cosmologists. We have to be much more than this, though –Billy Ward says we need to study music and human nature; Questlove writes in his new book (out just last month) that the drum is “a kind of magic signal system, a coded language”. So it goes pretty deep. I don’t think that drumming is a language as such, but neither is it just mathematics. Drumming is a big deal, though – it is a joy and a responsibility. Drummers are actually shamans, what Keith Tippett calls “Mujicians”.


This piece was originally written as a contribution to the 2013 Drum Expo. 



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