What is percussion?
The word percussion is used for drums and any instruments that make a tapping or rhythmic sound, such as your hands clapping or wooden sticks tapping together. The percussion and bass line work together to create the rhythmic feel or groove of a song – this affects whether you feel like tapping your foot along with the song or standing up and dancing. Adding a simple beat can change your experience of the song entirely. Percussion can be soft for a gentle rolling feel, or it can be loud and energetic. It can make you want to dance or create a slow groove feeling where you rock from side to side and click your fingers.
Meet the drum kit
While percussion can consist of anything that makes a tapping sound, such as tapping a fork against the side of a saucepan, the most popular and versatile form of percussion today consists of a drum kit. A drum kit is a set of instruments that are set up with each in a particular position. Each instrument has its own unique sound. See the image below of a drum kit. Note that the kick drum is also often called a bass drum.
Downbeats and upbeats
To start with, it is helpful to understand the difference between the downbeat and the upbeat. The downbeats are the strongest beat in the bar, and usually played with the kick drum, also known as a bass drum, which makes the sound of a dull thud. In a bar in 4/4 time signature, the downbeat might be played on beats one and three (with beat one being lounder and stronger than beat three).
The upbeats are the weaker beats of the bar, often played with a snare drum which makes a sharp cracking sound similar to clapping your hands. In 4/4 time signature, the upbeats might be played on the second and fourth beats.
If you imagine yourself dancing or tapping your foot, you would feel like moving your body/foot down with the downbeats and up with the upbeats. A conductor moves their stick down on the downbeat and up on the upbeat. Think of the kick drum as making a ‘boom’ sound and the snare drum making a ‘chk’ sound. Boom chk boom chk boom chk boom chk is the rhythm described above, and your foot goes down with ‘boom’ and up with ‘chk’.
In addition to the kick drum and the snare, a cymbal is often used. These are circular brass plates that make a resonating ringing sound or ‘ping’ when struck:
The hi-hat consists of two cymbals that are clapped together. This is what a hi-hat looks like:
When struck closed or played with the pedal, the hi-hat gives a short, crisp, muted percussive sound, referred to as a ‘chick.’ When struck open, the hi-hat plays a shimmering, sustained tone, as does the ride cymbal.
For now we will focus on creating a basic drum track with the kick, snare and closed hi-hat.
In 4/4 time, where there are four beats to a bar, the bar may be counted in the following ways. This score is written for drums, which is why it has neither a treble or bass clef. The two vertical lines at the beginning of the score below are a percussion clef.
You would count the above quarter notes by saying ‘1, 2, 3, 4.’
The score below shows eighth notes, which you would count by saying, ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.’ In this case, the numbers correspond with the start of each beat, and the word ‘and’ corresponds with the second half of the beat.
In the above score, the eighth notes are grouped with bars to emphasise that the strongest beats of the bar are on beats 1 and 3.
By naming each part of the beat like this, we can clarify exactly where in the bar a percussive beat should occur.
Reading drum music
In sheet music for drums, the kick drum is written as though it were the note F above Middle C on the treble clef staves, and the snare drum is written as though it were the note C above Middle C. The hi-hat is written just above the staves with a little x. Drumming notation does not seem to be as standardised as music scores, so sometimes you might see variations on the conventions described here.
Finding the drums in GarageBand
To create a drum track in GarageBand, add a new software instrument track, and in the instrument library, select drum kit then SoCal. Hide the controls. Add a new empty region that is one bar long, and double click on the bar at the top of the region to open the edit pane.
Unlike the piano, where each note represents the sound changing in frequency, the notes for the SoCal drums represent the different instruments available. You can see some of them on the following chart. In the chart, the kick drums have a yellow box around them. There are two different kick drums to choose from – the bass drum and the acoustic bass drum. To play the bass drum, press C1 on the sideways piano in the edit pane. To play the acoustic bass drum, press the note below it in GarageBand (although it is above it on the chart!), the B of C0, which we call B0.
Look at the instruments in the purple boxes. These are sounds you can choose for the upbeat. There are two different snare options, and there’s also a hand clap and a side stick. You can see you have four options. Snare 1 can be played by pressing the note above C1. Since that note is named D, we call it D1. Snare 2 can be played by pressing E1. The side stick can be played by pressing E1#, and so on.
You can see the closed hi-hat can be played by pressing F#1 – that is, the F# immediately above C1.
Creating a library of 4/4 drum rhythms
To start, do the following steps:
- Start a new project in GarageBand.
- Close the musical typing window.
- Select create midi instrument, then in the instrument library, choose drum kit, then SoCal.
- Hide the controls.
- Turn off the metronome. This is because it adds a clicking sound that is easily confused with the drums. The metronome will not be present in the final song when you export it.
- Add a new empty region that is one bar long.
- Double click on the bar at the top of the region to open the edit pane.
- Set the first bar to loop by dragging your mouse over the area with the bar numbers in the tracks pane.
This is how your screen should look now:
Start by entering the kick drum. Enter a note for C1 at the start of the first bar, and drag it so that it is 1/4 of a beat long. Copy the note and paste it at the start of beat 3. Listen to the notes. Can you hear them?
Try dragging them one note lower, to B0, to hear another kick drum. Which do you prefer? Place the on B0 or C1, depending on your preference.
Now enter 2 snare drum beats that are 1/4 beat long, at beats 2 and 4 in the bar. Enter them at D1. Play and see how it sounds. Can you hear the down-up movement?
Try dragging the snare drum beats onto each of C1#, D1# and E1 – these are the other options for a snare sound. Play it with each option and see how it sounds. Choose which one to use.
This is how your GarageBand file should look now:
At its simplest, this is a drum track you can loop to play for the whole song. Simply drag the top right corner to loop the track for the length of the song.
Now let’s add in a hi-hat that plays at the same time as the snare and kick. Enter a note 1/4 beat long at the start of beats 1, 2, 3 and 4, at F#1.
This is how it looks now:
Play it. Can you hear the hi-hat? Delete the hi-hat notes and play the track, then press Edit-undo and play the track again. Do you like it better with or without the hi-hat?
The Money Beat
Now add another hi-hat on the ‘and’ of every beat:
This is how the same track looks on a score:
Play it and see what you think. This drum rhythm is very popular, and is known as the ‘Money Beat.’ It is often used in pop songs and rock songs. When the hi-hat is used only on the 1, 2, 3 and 4, this rhythm adds a relaxed dance feel to your song. When you add the hi-hat to every half beat, the dance feel has more energy and excitement. Think of this as the default drum rhythm. If you’re not sure what to use, pick this.
Adjusting drums to suit your hearing
Change the velocity
I have little to no hearing for higher sounds, and can barely hear the hi-hat. When the drums are played with other tracks, such as the bass line and melody, I cannot hear the hi-hat at all. If you have beats like this that you cannot hear properly, try changing the velocity. The velocity refers to how hard the drum or cymbal is hit. Hitting it harder makes a louder sound.
Ensure the Notes tab is selected (the blue rectangle labelled Notes in the image above), and you will see the velocity slider. The velocity slider only affects the selected notes. Select all the notes for the instrument you cannot hear properly (in my case, the hi-hat), and and move the slider to the right to hit the instrument harder and create a louder sound. I find this helps a little but I still struggle to hear hi-hat once the bass line and melody are added in.
If you place your mouse at the very bottom of the GarageBand edit pane and drag upwards, you can display the velocity of each individual note:
In the image above, see the horizontal green lines at the bottom. The lower levels represent the lower velocity of the kick and the snare, whereas the higher levels represent the high velocity of the hi-hat. You can also move the horizontal green lines up and down to adjust the velocity of individual notes.
Boost the EQ
Another strategy is to boost the EQ. EQ is short for ‘equalisation’, and it is a process of manipulating sound waves to ensure each instrument can be heard clearly. If two instruments have similar sound waves, they may be difficult to distinguish from one another, so hearing people use EQ to adjust the sound waves of each to ensure they are distinct. Deaf people can use EQ to boost the sound within our specific range of hearing. To explain how to do this, let’s boost the EQ of the hi-hat within my preferred range.
If you check my audiogram, you will see I hear best from around 130 – 440 herz:
Create a new track with hi-hat only. Copy in The Money Beat, and delete the kick and snare. That just leaves the hi-hat. Click the controls button:
Click the EQ tab:
Hover your mouse over the area where you have the best hearing range. For me, this highlighted the frequencies in the 100-450 range:
See the little green dot at the 200 frequency mark? Click play on the hi-hat-only track and try sliding it up. What happens to the sound? Can you hear it better? For me this makes the hi-hat louder, but it also introduces a slight echoey sound which may make the rest of the song less clear. I will need to test this with the actual song to find the right amount of EQ boost.
This is something you can experiment with, to see if you can find louder sounds for your missing notes/instruments.
If none of the above strategies work for you, another option is to change instruments. Be aware that this can make things sound very strange to hearing people. I will give an example to explain why. As you know, I have very little hearing for higher frequencies. The ride cymbal makes a sound like a ‘ping’, followed by a shimmering, sustained tone. I can hear the ping, but not the sustained tone. For the Money Beat, the hi-hat is played every half-note, which is quicker than the amount of time it takes for the sustained tone of the ride cymbal to finish. So if I swap the hi-hat for the ride cymbal, those shimmering sustained notes will overlap each other, making a very busy, intense feel. Because I can’t hear the sustained part of the sound, only the ping, when I replace a hi-hat with a ride cymbal, it sounds ok to me. But for hearing people it is very full on, with all that ringing happening repeatedly, overlapping. So by substituting the hi-hat for a ride cymbal, I might accidentally create music that is rather unpleasant for hearing people to listen to, even though it sounds fine for me. If I am to be the only audience for my music, that’s not a problem. But if I want to play it in the presence of a hearing friend, then obviously it’s not going to work.
As well as this, there are other issues with changing instruments, such as genre. If you change instruments then you may need to check that the new instrument is suitable for your genre. You may find it helpful to check with a hearing person with regards to a good choice of substitute. Since I find the hi-hat so very difficult to hear, I have discovered that the cowbell can be a reasonable substitute. It is used in many genres, though hearing people might still find it a bit strange to hear a cowbell where they would normally hear a hi-hat.
When multiple instruments are played at the same time, such as the hi-hat with the kick or the snare, the sounds become a bit strange for me. For example, when I add the hi-hat to play at the same time as the kick and the snare, I can no longer distinguish so clearly between the kick and the snare, reducing the down-up-down-up feel of the rhythm. I assume this is because my hearing aids have been programmed to boost the higher frequencies (that are more like speech) and deliberately pull back the sounds of the kick and snare.
What to do to solve this?
The most useful strategy for me is to separate out the sounds. For example, in order to preserve the down-up feel, I do not play the hi-hat at the same time as the kick and the snare. So my version of the money beat has the hi-hat only on the ‘ands’, the kick on 1 and 3, the snare on 2 and 4. That way I’m only listening to one instrument at a time and can more fully appreciate the nuances of each.
Tweak for your hearing as you go
As you work creating songs in GarageBand, use the above strategies to constantly tweak notes for your hearing – not just the drums but everything. Test tracks together and tweak more, paring back notes, boosting EQ and increasing the velocity for quiet notes, and substituting instruments so that you are always working with notes that you can hear.
As I said in the lesson about bass lines and harmonies, it is worth making a note of your observations of what works for you. That means that for future songs, when you see a hi-hat or equivalent challenging note written on a score, you can quickly and efficiently make the changes needed, instead of having to test every single time. I have created space for you to make notes about your preferred instruments, combinations and adjustments to make for your hearing, on the Preferences chart. Take a moment now to jot down your observations from this lesson.
Create a few more drum rhythms
Next we’ll create a few more popular rhythms. The rhythms below demonstrate the basic elements of constructing drum beats. As you create percussion tracks for your song, keep in mind that at various points in the song, you can you can strip it down just to the kick drum, or just the snare or just the hi-hat, and then build it up again. This creates contrast within the music.
To add the new rhythms, first, change the name of the region to The Money Beat, to reduce confusion with future tracks we create. Now duplicate this onto a new track, ready for editing:
- Create a new SoCal drum track.
- In the tracks area, select the region for your Money Beat rhythm by clicking on the header bar so that it is light green, then press command-C to copy.
- Click on the new SoCal drum track, move the playhead to the beginning of the song, then press command-V to paste.
- Mute the sound on The Money Beat track so you can only hear the new track.
Boom Boom Smack
Select the region for the new track and name it Boom Boom Smack. For this rhythm, enter hi-hats on the start of beats 1, 2, 3 and 4. Enter a kick drum at the start of beats 1 and 2, a snare at the start of beat 3, as per this score:
Here’s how it should look in GarageBand:
This rhythm has a feeling of building towards something, as the empty space in beat 4 creates a feeling of anticipation. It feels slower, ‘half-time.’ It’s good to use in an introduction or just before a chorus. Don’t use this for the body of your song – instead pick something like the Money Beat, and use Boom Boom Smack in specific parts of your song.
As you work, don’t forget to edit according to your hearing needs. For me, that means increasing the velocity of the hi-hat notes, and deleting those that co-incide with the kick and snare.
Four On The Floor
Create another track, and enter a kick on beats 1, 2, 3, 4.
A kick on all four beats, on its own or as part of a more complex beat, is known as Four on the Floor, which is a steady, intense effect. This is used in all genres. On its own like this, it is used to simplify the rhythm for a short time before building it back up again. This is a really great way to create contrast in your music.
Pop Beat – Four On The Floor
This is a pop beat that uses the kick drum playing four on the floor, which can be altered with a snare and hi-hat added in various ways to build it up. Four on the floor is often used to make the music more intense for a section, before returning to something simpler like the kick on beats 1 and 3 only. Create another track, and copy in the Money Beat region. Add a kick to beats 2 and 4. You should now have a kick on all four beats, like four on the floor, a snare on beats two and four, and a hi-hat on all the eighth notes.
Play this track by itself. Then play The Money Beat by itself. Can you hear the difference?
The Money Beat and Four On The Floor sound so similar to me that I would not be able to distinguish between them, because when the instruments are combined the sounds become indistinguishable from each other. Because I already have the Money Beat in my library, the only way to make this into a clear, distinct rhythm, would be if I keep the hi-hats only on the ands, and delete the snares. If I keep the snares and delete the kicks, then this is exactly the same as my version of the Money Beat!
In creating a library of drum rhythms that work for me, you can see that I will end up with far fewer options that hearing people, and I need to be a bit creative to find solutions that will work for me. If you make an observation like this about drum rhythms, jot it down on your Preferences reference.
Save your current GarageBand file as ‘4-4 Drum rhythms’ so that you can refer back to it when making songs in 4/4 time. You can add more rhythms as you learn them and adjust them to your hearing, and you can quickly check back to see if the rhythm is indeed a new one for you or if it sounds indistinguishable from one you already have. When you create a new song you can copy a track from your ‘4-4 Drum rhythms’ file to paste into your new song.
Creating a library of 3/4 drum rhythms
So far we have focused on drum rhythms for 4/4 time signature, but Happy Birthday is in 3/4 time signature. I’ll now cover some simple drum rhythms suitable for 3/4 time.
Exit your saved 4-4 Drum rhythms file, and open your file for Happy Birthday.
Before we go further I just want to explain how to describe the beats in 3/4 time. In 3/4 time, we count like this:
In the above score, even though there are only three beats per bar, we still refer to a single beat as a ‘quarter note’. For quarter notes, count ‘1, 2, 3.’
The hi-hats in the above score are eighth notes. Count ‘1 and 2 and 3 and.’ In this case, the numbers correspond with the start of each beat, and the word ‘and’ corresponds with the second half of the beat. Even though there are only six half-beats in a bar, we still refer to each half-beat as an eighth note.
Basic Eighth Note Waltz
We’ll start by making a simple eighth note waltz for Happy Birthday. Create a new SoCal drum track with a region 1 bar long, and enter a kick for beat 1, a snare for beats 2 and 3, and a hi-hat for beats 1 and 2 and 3 and
Listen to the track by itself, make any hearing adjustments needed, then try playing it with your bass line, harmony and melody. You may need to adjust the volume of each track to ensure you can hear them all. Play the song, and while you are listening to it, experiment with muting the drums, and then unmuting. What do you think? Do you like the song better with or without the drums?
Eighth Note Waltz Variation
Now let’s try a variation on that. Create a new SoCal drum track and copy in the Basic Eighth Note Waltz. Add in another kick on 1 and:
Mute the original Basic Eighth Note Waltz and try listening to the bass and melody with the variation. Mute that and play it with the original drum rhythm. Which do you prefer?
I like the original version as with the additional kick it feels like there is too much going on and I struggle to hear everything at once. For me, less is definitely more!
Eighth Note Waltz Variation 2
Try another variation. Copy the original Basic Eighth Note Waltz and change the snare on beat 3 to a kick:
Make any adjustments needed, then try listening to it with the melody and bass line, to see what you think of it.
Adjusting the backing
The ‘backing’ of a song refers to the percussion tracks, bass lines and harmonies. These create the overall feel, mood and groove of a song. In your Happy Birthday file, you now have three different drum tracks, several harmonies, and two bass lines. Mute the melody and harmonies, and try listening to different combinations of the bass and drums together.
- Experiment with adjusting the volumes for each track until they sound good together.
- Experiment with simplifying the drum track by removing hi-hats if need.
- Experiment with the tempo. Try changing it to be faster or slower.
These experiments will help you develop a feel for what sounds good to you. I noticed that I enjoyed everything more when I slowed the tempo down to 90 and pared things back by removing some of the hi-hats.
Once you like the feel/groove of your combination of bass line and drums, add in the harmony and evaluate. Then add in the melody and evaluate again.
Remember to make notes on your preferences chart about what you like.
When writing songs, make use of the Percussion Reference to see the rhythms described here and which notes to use for which instrument.