Are Drummers Musicians? Clearing up the Myth

Often, I hear people saying that drummers aren’t musicians after all. As a drummer myself, that always makes me feel ridiculous and very underestimated – I’m sure many fellow drummers can relate. But is this claim really valid?

Undoubtedly, drummers are musicians. The ability to play the drums well and to harmonize with the other band members requires a high degree of skill, coordination, creativity, and musicianship. Drummers are responsible for keeping the band together.

Some people still underestimate drummers, and it’s essential to understand both sides of this discussion.

Why Drummers Are Musicians

It becomes evident why drummers should count themselves as musicians just as much as their bandmates. Firstly, it’s necessary to figure out what drummers do.

In the context of playing in a band, the drummer has to do multiple things at once.

1 – They Have to Master Their Instrument

Even if the drums may be easy to get started with, it is a very complex instrument to master.

Mastering to play the drums is not as easy as people might think. A drummer has to:

  • Play dynamically. It would sound very monotonous if every note sounded as loud as all the others.
  • Keep time. That is key in almost every area of music.
  • Be in good shape. It’s essential to have enough physical fitness to move around the set – sometimes for hours!
  • Coordinate all four limbs. You always have to play different patterns with your arms and feet and combine them in one beat. If you want to read more interesting content on how drummers are able to multitask, check out this blog post.
  • Play with good technique. Playing with some good technique is vital to play the instrument. It just makes it easier. When applying a lousy technique, your muscles exhaust faster, and you may even hurt yourself.
  • Be able to improvise. There are always situations in which notes are missing, or you just want to play a solo. This requires a good gut feeling of the right notes that should be played next, so it always sounds good.
  • Be able to read sheet music. Often, there are situations in which people can’t explain to you what they want you to play, so it’s rather written down and handed to you in the form of sheet music.
  • Have a groove! The beauty of drumming comes into play when all parts of the drumset harmonically melt into one groove. People even dance to that.

2 – They Listen to the Band

As soon as you begin feeling comfortable playing the drums, you probably search for fellow musicians to play together in a band.

For a band to sound like one entity, everybody can’t just play his part without listening to what the others are doing. I still remember my teacher’s words when I was playing in our then school big band:

“You don’t need drum notes for this piece. If you play after these, you can do your part just as excellently.” – He gave me the notes for the first trumpet.

Quick explanation: In this piece, the first trumpet is playing some important musical accents. I, as the drummer, was tasked to play a suitable backbeat and just play the accents when the trumpet plays them.

I know this might sound a little off, but it’s very clever. This is an excellent example of the importance of listening to each other. And that is the drummer’s task, simply because he plays a rhythmic instrument that supports and holds together the other melodic instruments.

It becomes clear that the drummer’s role in a band is rather special. He holds together the melodic pieces in terms of timing, dynamics, and groove. And always patiently waits for his chance to fill in between. In fact, he might be the only person listening to all instruments at the same time.

3 – They Make Sure the Band Stays Together

During a song, the drummer has to make sure the band doesn’t fall apart. Listening to the other musicians also counts in here. But they proactively have to ensure that the band stays together.

When it sometimes happens that, for example, forgotten lyrics or a failed solo throws the band out of the song, it is crucial to get together again quickly. And that’s the drummer’s responsibility. He can cue the band into unity again. This includes that the drummer knows the songs inside and out, in case he has to count the others in with “Chorus! 1, 2, 3, 4”.

Stereotypes and Common Misunderstandings

Once I heard fellow musicians ask the drummer, “Do you know music?” which made me think. In some way, drummers must have done something that triggers such thoughts in the others, for example, by serving a specific stereotype.

As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, playing the drums can be easy to get started with. But at the same time, this is very dangerous because sometimes, drummers overestimate themselves while having a low skill level.

For example, they might just be playing loud and fast, not listening to the rest of the band. But at the very beginning stages of drumming, this happens. And not only does this happen to drummers, but it also happens to the other instrument players, too. It just takes practice!

Another reason for this stereotype building could be that people are just roughly observing a drummer play. From that standpoint, it often looks easy. But have they tried playing themselves? Probably not. This nicely shows that it’s easy to gain an opinion that suits you, and it’s hard to be convinced of the opposite. Stereotypes evolve that way, just like language.

Luckily I have never had to experience such a situation where another drummer or I was belittled like that. If this should happen to you, now you know how to argue well with this blog post. 🙂

Sheet Music vs. Improvisation

As a drummer, you have to be able to read sheet music, as well as improvise. But does it make one a lesser drummer if he can only read sheet music and is terrible at improvising? Or the other way around, when he can’t read sheet music but then can excellently play his soli?

Imagine you’re sitting in a 500 horsepower car but only go so slow that you barely make use of the power. This can be applied to the drums. The drumset is a very expressive instrument. And if you’d only know how to read sheet music – you might already be the master of that – you’re hardly using what is available. Being able to play freely around the set, explore the instrument, and develop an exciting solo out of nowhere is an essential skill that is often necessary when performing live.

That doesn’t mean that it is not necessary to learn how to read sheet music. As written in the first subheading, being able to read sheet music is essential, too. Imagine that you are part of a large orchestra where every note in each piece is precisely written down, requiring you to stick with it — no chance to improvise here.

A good drummer should be able to do both. Depending on the musical area, one is a bit more critical than the other. But all in all, it’s necessary to be good at both.

What Makes a Musician a Musician?

When asking whether drummers are musicians, I think you should, more importantly, ask what makes a musician a musician.

Music is commonly understood to be a combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm. A musician is someone who is contributing to this overall objective and purpose.

The person who plays the drums can undoubtedly contribute to the rhythm, and with some imagination, he can also do the melody, depending on the pitch of his instruments. Somebody like Terry Bozzio can also contribute to harmony by the size and tuning of his extensive setup. Master drummer Max Roach was able to transform his drums into whatever fits the song structure. I wouldn’t call Bozzio and Roach mutual players, but real innovators. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of talented drummers around the world nowadays.

This is by no means intended to discount the player who only has a good time. Time is an indispensable part of the music. That’s the bottom line. Besides, musical skills are required to go with fills and creative timing, such as orchestrating details for songs.

I think that every instrument is musical; it just differs how to use that in its specific context. If the people who play drums are not real musicians, what would they be?

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