Pedagogical goals of the Drum Loop

The Drum Loop aims to teach beginners with no drumming experience, or musical experience of any kind, to program beats in a variety of pop, dance and Afro-Cuban styles. The patterns that users learn with the Drum Loop can be used across a variety of drum machines and software—Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live, Garageband and the like. Patterns learned by ear (and eye) with the Drum Loop will also be easier to learn on physical drums and percussion instruments.

Users of the Drum Loop will practice connecting the experience of hearing beats to seeing corresponding visual patterns. The app thereby scaffolds the learning of the rhythmic axis of traditional music notation. The Drum Loop will be hopefully be of particular value to those students who suffer from dyslexia and other challenges to music reading. By connecting accurately-played authentic rhythms to a dynamically interactive notation system, the Drum Loop should lower the barrier to entry for more technically demanding musical skills and concepts.

More broadly, prolonged attention to the Drum Loop’s included beats, and those created by users themselves, result in a great deal of practice of analytical listening and musical timekeeping. Users can experience for themselves which specific arrangements of rhythmic patterns and timbres create a satisfying groove after many repetitions, and which are unmusical or unsatisfying.

Target audience

The target audience for the Drum Loop is high school students. It is my hope that the app’s simplicity also makes it accessible to younger children, and that its depth offers the opportunity for meaningful creative engagement by adult beginners. While the Drum Loop presumes no musical knowledge or experience of any kind, it may still be of some value to intermediate musicians, especially those without a background in drumming, percussion or dance music production.

Rhythm appreciation

Rhythm is much neglected in music education, unless you study drums or percussion specifically. Western musical pedagogy devotes enormous attention to harmony, but gives only the most cursory consideration to rhythm. There is a shortage of opportunity for students to consider the aesthetic and emotional meaning of rhythm, beyond simply the ability to follow and execute it correctly. For example, Temperley (2010) posits syncopation as a kind “rhythmic dissonance.” The rhythms of common-practice classical music are organized hierarchically, with notes on weak beats conditional on the adjacent strong beat notes. Syncopation is the violation of this hierarchy, making weak beats more salient than strong beats.

All music contains structures of rhythmic tension and resolution as rich with metaphorical meaning as their harmonic equivalents.  Indeed, the rhythmic structures of music can be considered to be more fundamental. A great deal of world music lacks triadic harmony, and is largely or entirely unpitched. By contrast, it is difficult to find music without any rhythmic structure. (I would debate whether completely rhythm-less music is even possible.)

The Drum Loop relates rhythmic dissonance to “angular dissonance.” The strongest beats fall on the largest subdivisions of the circle: 180 degrees, then 90 and 270 degrees, then 45, 135, 225 and 315 degrees. The weakest beats fall on the smallest subdivision of the circle. For a sixteen-step pattern, those are 22.5 degrees, 67.5 degrees, 112.5 degrees, and so on. Students with no ear for rhythm whatsoever may nevertheless find the visual equivalent to be quite intuitive, with a sense that the cardinal angles are more “basic” somehow than oblique angles. Through extended exposure, such students should be able to translate their visual intuition into musical intuition.

The backbeat

The common feature of nearly all western dance music is the accented backbeat. A backbeat rhythm places percussive accents on the “back” half of the phrase, as opposed to the more metrically salient front half. In 4/4 time, the backbeats are beats two and four. Alternatively, in cut time, the backbeat is the third beat of each measure. The snare drum most commonly carries the backbeat, but it can be accented by any instrument. In early twentieth century American music, accented backbeats were quite common, but the term “backbeat” itself did not enter widespread use until the early 1950s (Baur, 2012). The backbeat originated in Dixieland jazz, country and gospel, and it became a defining characteristic of rock, funk, R&B and hip-hop. The backbeat and its associated music styles have been considered throughout their history to be disreputable, low-class, primitive and barbaric, even threatening to undermine the moral fabric of society entirely. This is unsurprising, given the backbeat’s origins in marginalized groups: African-Americans, rural whites and immigrants.

The backbeat arose independently from early jazz banjo and piano, climactic embellishments in “Chicago-style” jazz drumming, New Orleans processional drumming, handclaps and tambourine hits in sanctified gospel music, staccato guitar and mandolin accompaniment in country music, and slap bass techniques in both country and jazz (Tamlyn, 1998). The backbeat gradually expanded its role over the course of the twentieth century from an accent or embellishment to a foundational rhythmic gesture.

Why is the backbeat so compelling? Why has it come to dominate global popular music? The answer may be its balance between surprise and predictability. The backbeat is a form of syncopation, but it is the least destabilizing form of syncopation. We can define metric salience as the number of equally sized subdivisions of the musical pattern it takes to reach a given position. The more subdivisions it takes to reach a given event, the lower its metrical salience. The downbeat is the most salient position, while the backbeat is the second most salient. We understand syncopated patterns better when the syncopations happen in more metrically salient positions (Ladinig, Honing, Háaden & Winkler, 2009). The backbeat is syncopated enough to be interesting, while still being metrically salient enough to be understood.

Nearly all of the patterns included in the Drum Loop’s exercises use a backbeat. Users will quickly come to appreciate how fundamental the snare hits on the east and west of each pattern are to creating the groove so familiar from the music around them.

Visualizing evenness and modularity

Why are traditional rhythms like clave patterns so compelling even after a great many repetitions? Perhaps we are reacting to symmetries that are challenging to detect on a one-dimensional timeline, but that are readily apparent on a two-dimensional circle. For example, this illustration of 2-3 son clave by Barth (2011) shows an axis of reflective symmetry between the fourth and twelfth beats of the pattern. This symmetry is considerably less obvious when viewed in more conventional notation. We may be responding to these symmetries without being able to easily parse them completely, which sustains our attention across long timescales.

Symmetry in 2-3 son clave

Traditional rhythms have a tendency toward “evenness,” a relatively equal distribution of beats across different regions of the metrical unit. This makes sense from an attentional standpoint; excessively long intervals of silence make us lose the thread of the beat, and undermine its “drive” (Toussaint, 2013). The most sophisticated rhythmic cultures use beats that are even, but not perfectly symmetrical. The drumming practices of Africa and the Caribbean balance a steadily predictable beat with destabilizing syncopation, to hold the listener’s interest without confounding the sense of groove.

Claves often hold our attention by means of a rhythmic call-and-response structure. The first part of the pattern poses a “question” by creating rhythmic tension (syncopation), and the second part answers the question by releasing tension. The 3-2 form of son clave creates tension in its first half with three onsets spaced three pulses apart, in conflict with the underlying duple meter. The second half has two onsets spaced two pulses apart, with the second on the relatively strong backbeat.

[I]n the most interesting rhythms with k onsets and timespan n, k and n are relatively prime (have no common divisor larger than 1). This property is natural because the rhythmic contradiction is easier to obtain if the onsets do not coincide with the strong beats of the meter (Demaine, Gomez-Martin, Meijer, Rappaport, Taslakian, Toussaint, Winograd & Wood, 2009).

Traditional rhythms also make use of modularity, rotating groupings of beats around the circle like beads on a necklace. The three-against-two hemiola common to Afro-Cuban patterns is easy to conceptualize once viewed on a circular graph; one simply skips around the circle in increments of three. This is quite similar to the way that we can use the circle of half steps or the circle of fifths to understand harmonic relationships and transpositions.

A planned feature of the Drum Loop will multitouch gestures to give users access to the expressive possibilities of rhythmic modularity. By twisting a ring with three fingers, the user will be able to rotate the drum hits in that ring any number of units earlier or later, during playback if they so choose. Rhythmic transformations that would normally require very sophisticated music-reading and performance skills to understand and execute will thereby be effortlessly accessible to beginners.

Teaching computational thinking

One could consider written music to be a method for “programming” human musicians. The analogy between programming and music composition becomes more direct when the musician is a computer. Drum and synthesizer programming makes the connection literal. A key concept in programming is that a particular activity or task is expressed as a series of individual steps or instructions that can be executed by the computer. Like a recipe, a sequence of programming instructions specifies the behavior or action that should be produced. In music, the behaviors and actions are notes and drum hits. The composer must specify various parameters for these events: when should they happen? What should be their pitches and durations? What sounds should they produce? What timbres should those sounds possess?

Music composition involves the computational concept of control flow. Loops are a fundamental organizing principle in both programming and music, particularly in dance music. Both domains make extensive use of the recursive nesting of loops within loops. The musical command “repeat until cue” is an exact parallel to the while loop. Composers and programmers alike benefit from the ability to modularize and re-use units of code.

Beyond computational concepts, music also opens doors into the broader social context in which programmers operate. Building on other the work of others has been a longstanding practice in programming (Brennan & Resnick, 2012). It makes little sense to write commonplace code like sorting algorithms, database structures or device drivers from scratch when you have easy access to open source examples via the internet. The open-source ethic of programmers enables them to develop much more complex software than would be possible if everyone worked in complete isolation. Musicians similarly benefit from a culture of re-use and remixing, though we usually do not think in those terms explicitly. Why work through every possible note or chord combination by trial and error when you can use a standard scale, motif or chord progression?

Both in programming and music, reusing and remixing require critical code-reading capacities, and they provoke difficult questions about ownership and authorship. When is it reasonable to borrow from others? What constitutes appropriate credit and attribution? How should teachers assess cooperative and collaborative work? Is originality the chief virtue, or is the result the only important basis for judgment?

Students who learn through creative undertakings face a psychological obstacle around the notion of failure. In traditional schooling, being wrong is shameful. But programmers almost never get it right the first time. They fail, and iterate, and fail differently, and then iterate some more. A program is never totally finished; there is always another bug to chase down, another feature to implement, something that could be executed more elegantly. This is why the software we use every day is constantly being updated. A strong parallel exists with music. It is a truism among musicians that a piece is never finished; you simply stop working on it. The iterative nature of creative practice like programming and music can be at odds with the success/failure binary that predominates in schooling, as we will explore in the following section.

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