All the instruments you may see in a band play certain notes and have to be in key for the song to be coherent and make sense. For example, if a song is in the key of E major, every instrument has to play in that key; otherwise, you’d get cacophony and not a song. However, you never hear drummers talking about playing in a certain key or tuning to one, which begs the question of whether drums even have notes.
Drums technically have notes, but only rhythmic notes. That’s why the drums don’t have to be in the same key as the other instruments. When tuning drums, drummers tune them to get a sound they like and not to get certain notes out of them. Some drums can be tuned to a pitch.
This article will give you a detailed overview of how drums function and whether or not they have notes in the traditional sense. Read on to learn more about this fascinating instrument.
What Is a Note?
Before we examine the question of drums and notes, we have to take a quick look at music theory and see what notes even are. I’ll try to be as brief as possible, so we don’t have to delve deeper into music theory.
Sounds are basically air vibrations. For example, when a string is plucked, it vibrates and stirs the air molecules around it. The molecules also start to vibrate at the same frequency as the string.
Our ears capture these vibrations, and our brains assign a place to each of these vibrations as a specific sound. Each frequency of vibration is perceived as a different sound. Each sound, that is, frequency is one note.
Therefore, when we talk about notes, we talk about frequencies at which the air vibrates. In Western music, these frequencies are divided into 12 notes:
- C# / Db
- D# / Eb
- F# / Gb
- G# / Ab
- A# / Bb
Where two notes are listed on the same spot above, it means that they produce the same pitch. Their name depends only on the key you’re in. For example, if you’re in the A major scale, it’s C#, but if you’re in the Bb minor scale, it’s Db.
In less formal contexts, the different names for these notes are used interchangeably. Musicians often stick to what they find easiest to understand, and unless they’re pros or really serious about their playing, nothing significant will change.
Why Drums Don’t Have Notes
Now that we have a rough understanding of what a note is, we can examine whether drums have notes and whether it’s even important.
Since a note is just what we call a certain frequency, everything that produces sounds technically has a note. If you honk your car horn, it produces a certain note. It will also produce notes if you bang a pot with a wooden spoon.
The same goes for drums. You will get some notes when you hit a snare or a hi-hat. Putting a guitar tuner next to the drums will probably tell you what note it is with relative precision. However, these notes are not important in any way.
Drums are rhythmic instruments and don’t follow the notes of a scale. Whether or not the pitch produced by the drums makes sense in the song’s key doesn’t really matter. The drum kit is there to provide the rhythmic background for the music. You can see it as a canvas on which the rest of the instruments add details to get a complete picture.
There are certain notes that you can read on drum notation. However, these notes are only rhythmic and not melodic. Drum notation tells you which drum to strike, how many times, and how long each strike should sound. It doesn’t tell you that it has to be in the pitch of note A#; that would be absurd.
Can You Tune Drums?
You can tune drums, and it’s even advisable to, even though most drummers don’t do it often enough. However, it’s usually done differently than with other instruments.
If you have a guitar, for example, you have to tune each open string to produce a certain note when you pluck it. In the standard tuning, it’s E – A – D – G – B – E. There are many other tunings, but we can stick to this one for simplicity.
When you tune drums, you usually don’t want to do this. Most of the time, drummers tune them to find the sound they like. Drums are tuned by making the heads looser or tighter. Most drummers won’t tighten or loosen the heads to get specific notes as you’d do with guitar strings. Drummers get the sound they’re pleased with and stick to that.
This is not to say that it’s impossible to tune the drums to get certain notes out. You can take a snare and tune it to the note of C. A small number of drummers will tune their toms to be at certain intervals from each other, and they claim that this enhances the sound.
However, tuning your drums to get certain notes won’t do much for the overall sound of your band. Most likely, the changes won’t even be noticeable, and the effort will have been in vain.
Therefore, there is no need to go that deep into drum tuning. Aim for the sound you like, make it sound reasonable, and you’ll be fine. Unless you tune your snare to sound like the one used on Metallica’s St. Anger album, no one but drum nerds will notice.
Are All Percussion Instruments Like This?
When we discuss drums, we typically think of the drum sets you can find in rock, pop, jazz, and similar genres. However, percussion instruments encompass a very broad range of instruments, and not all of them work the same way.
In general, drums don’t have real notes, as we have discussed. This includes most types of drums outside a typical kit and most percussion instruments. Despite that, some percussion instruments have real notes.
There is a group of instruments we call pitched percussion instruments. These instruments are percussive because you have sticks that you hit the instruments with, but you produce real musical notes. In this group, you can find instruments such as:
- The glockenspiel
Additionally, some drums are usually tuned to a specific pitch, such as:
- Steel drums
Does a Drum Kit Have a Pitch?
Since we have thoroughly discussed drum notes and whether they exist, a question that has to pop up is whether drums have a pitch or not. To make things simple, we’ll stick to typical drum kits, as it would probably take a dissertation to discuss all the members of the drum family.
Drums do have a pitch, just not in the same sense other instruments do. We could say that everything that makes a sound makes some kind of pitch. The only difference is whether the pitch is important or not.
Drums don’t have a definite pitch. This means that when you hit a drum, it produces multiple pitches, not just one. Instruments typically have a definite pitch, which is why the pitch is an important factor when playing guitar or piano, for example.
For this reason, drums are often classified as non-pitched instruments. Their pitch is simply unrelated to the pitch produced by the other instruments, and it’s not of major importance when composing music. It all boils down to personal preference. Some drummers like high-pitched drums, while some like low-pitched drums.
What Influences Drum Pitch?
The pitch of a drum primarily depends on how fast the skin, or the head, vibrates. Fast vibrations will result in a high pitch, while slow vibrations will result in a low pitch. That’s why drum pitch greatly depends on tension.
If the drum heads are tightened, then the pitch will be higher. On the other hand, if you make the drum heads looser, they will have a lower pitch.
Another important factor is the density and thickness of the drum head. A thick, dense drum head will be tighter and have a higher pitch. This doesn’t mean that you need new drum heads if you prefer a higher pitch. Tightening them will be just enough to give you the sound you like.
The drum shells’ size is another major factor. A large shell will cause the drum head to vibrate more slowly, resulting in a lower pitch, while a small shell will do the opposite, which will give the drum a higher pitch.
The pitch your drum produces will also depend on where you hit it. Hitting it at the center will cause slower vibrations, lowering the pitch. Hitting the drum close to the edge will create faster vibrations and thus a higher pitch.
Do You Have To Know How To Read Drum Notation?
Since we have mentioned that drums kind of have notes and that there are music sheets for them, you might be asking if it’s mandatory to learn how to use this tool. You’ll probably be happy to know that you can simply learn by ear and spend your entire music journey like that. However, there are some benefits to reading sheet music.
Many professional drummers have learned to play by ear and don’t even know how to read sheet music. If it worked for them, you could assume it would work for you. After all, drums mostly depend on your rhythmic abilities and coordination.
Playing by ear has the great benefit of greatly boosting your adaptability and sense of rhythm. While it might be hard to start like that, especially if you’re self-taught, it might turn you into a drummer with amazing rhythmic skills over time. This is especially great when you have to adapt to changes and learn quickly.
Not depending on sheet music will allow you to get more creative and experiment more with your technique. If you don’t stick to a firm set of rules, there is much more room for you to get creative and think of unique beats.
However, learning to read drum notation might make it easier to collaborate with other musicians. It’s much faster to pick up new material if your prospective band members can send you some sheet music and let you learn.
Yes, they can probably create a drum loop in a drum VST and let you learn it, but it will probably take too much time. You don’t want to give them a reason to replace you with the VST they’re using.
Learning how to read sheet music will also boost your overall understanding of music theory. If you have to play professionally with people who are well-versed in it, they will find it much quicker to explain things to you using the proper terminology.
You can get away with simplistic and visual explanations of what you have to do in a casual setting. However, a professional musician probably won’t want to sit down behind your drum kit and show you what to do. Learning how to read sheet music will make you look more professional, and it will make you much easier to work with.
On the other hand, if you don’t have dreams of becoming a professional musician, there probably isn’t any real need to learn how to read drum notation. The main benefit you might get is bragging rights, but apart from that, your musical experience will stay the same.
We can conclude by saying that drums have notes, like anything that makes a sound, but those notes are not important. What’s important is how much a drummer likes the sound of their drums and how well the sound fits in the music.
Don’t worry about being in key if you’re a beginner drummer. Tune your drums to make them sound the way you like them, and focus on laying down a great groove as a background for the guitars, vocals, and bass. Best of luck on your musical journey!