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«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»

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Webster’s Dictionary of Music asserts specific observations of what fundamentally constitutes a good or pleasing melody: “Aesthetically an ideally beautiful melody has a perfect balance between the high and low registers and a symmetric alternation of ascending and descending tonal groups.”4 From this description Webster’s Dictionary of Music explores the definition of melody as being a collection of tones organized not only in terms of its range but in its tonal direction as well, all organized in what is described as being a “perfect balance.” According to this definition, melody can also be defined in the context of tonal music by its intervallic

construction. For example:

Ibid Whittal (2002: 758) Slonimsky (1998: 311) Most memorable melodies move within the range of an octave between 2 dominants in a major key with the important points on the tonic (root), the mediant (major 3rd) and the upper dominant (perfect 5th). In acoustical terms this octave is outlined by the 3rd (lower dominant), 4th (tonic), 5th (mediant), and 6th (upper dominant) overtones in the harmonic series. It may therefore be conjectured that Western melodic lines are functions of this harmonic series.5 This definition suggests that an emphasis on certain specific pitches derived from the harmonic series also contributes to creating an “ideal” melody. This relationship to the harmonic series is also purported to be an important part of melodic construction in that: “Many consider the derivation of melody from the harmonic series to be one of the most persistent and irrefutable phenomena in melodic construction, and therefore in all music.”6 However, while the construction of a melody can be examined in terms of its relationship to the harmonic series, this definition would seem to best fit in the context of Western tonal music.

Both the Webster’s and Oxford dictionaries acknowledge how melody is manifested differently in other cultures or even in atonal music, where music is not necessarily organized according to the same harmonic principles as in Western music. Webster’s Dictionary of Music acknowledges that: “the principles underlying the melodic structure of much non-Western music differ widely from those of Western melodies, there are fewer harmonic implications and scales that may be derived from intervals and pitches not found within an equally-tempered octave.”7 Slonimsky (1998: 312) Ibid Ibid Similarly, with regard to atonal music: “Atonal melodies follow structural plans entirely different from those of tonal melodies and excludes all triadic confirmations and has no link with the harmonic series. Organized atonal systems…follow their own rules of aesthetic structures, with the idea of beauty derived from special considerations of intervallic motion.”8 From this statement we are presented with the idea that in atonal music the role of intervallic construction plays a very important role due to the absence of a link to the harmonic series.

Significantly, its musical successes from a melodic standpoint often “follow their own rules.” The Oxford Dictionary also points to melody being an inherent part of the human experience and how human speech relates to melody, particularly in non-Western cultures.

In language, intonation is an important source of meaning. Many African and Asian languages depend on an intonational system much richer than those with Indo-European roots. The use of any kind of “melodic” inflection to determine meaning in language is quite remarkable.9 The observation is made that many African, Asian and non-Western languages use an intonational system in the form of language that is much more varied and complex than others.

For example, the meaning of a word or sentence can change depending on the emphasis or the intonation. Similarly, the complexity of how a culture uses melodic inflections in their speech can also be reflected in how a culture expresses melody in its music. It is said to be so complex


In music, just as in language, the way different qualities inhere in such a form of expression is complex. Musicians consider it to be so complex, and there are so many different types of melodies from different cultures and ages, that melody is the least well explained aspect of music theory.10 Slonimsky (1998: 312) Whittal (2002: 758) Ibid While both Webster’s and Oxford Dictionaries acknowledge melody as being the important intersection of tones and rhythm, they also agree on how the overall organization of pitches and intervals that create melody varies across cultural contexts. Given the different cultural approaches to music and sensibilities to intonation, it is actually considered to be very difficult to fully explain melody.

In Otto Karolyi’s Traditional African & Oriental Music (1998), the author examines the definition of melody from an African perspective. Given the general rhythmic and percussive nature of African music, this provides an interesting inclusion to our discussion of how the drum set could be considered a melodic instrument as well.

While the author acknowledges the initial definition of melody as being: “a succession of upward and downward moving pitches (notes)”11 he also offers that melody is: “…obviously more than an impersonal reference to a succession of pitches” and that this basic definition of melody: “is not satisfactory when we think of music which effects our emotions.” For Karolyi: “That essential extra is easy to feel, but rather difficult to describe.”12 While the author acknowledges certain characteristic aspects that do contribute to general melodic construction, he takes issue with the idea that melody is the central focus of music and

that this comes from a Western mentality of music that places so much priority on harmony:

In the West, it is a debatable but strongly held view that the ability to create significant melodies is the very essence of musical artistry and a sign of individual creative genius.

The West’s preoccupation with harmony leads melody to be seen as part of the composer’s overall harmonic thinking, and the horizontal and vertical aspects of music

–  –  –

are thus strongly related. This harmonic view of music is debatable because music may also be more rhythm orientated and its melody therefore subordinated.13 According to Karolyi: “In African music, rhythm can in itself be the music”14 and melodies can be derived from as little as two, three, four or five notes as long as the continuity of the rhythmic line is complete. This author’s approach to describing melody (specifically while considering melody from an African perspective) is important as it recognizes not only that melody can be successfully expressed using only a limited collection of pitches but it also stresses the importance of rhythm in the context of melodic construction. This will present a number of possibilities when further considering the drum set as a melodic instrument.

In general we can summarize these points and focus on a basic framework to define melody for

our purposes:

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- Melodic construction is considered as a confluence between rhythm and pitch.

- Attention is often given to the use of intervallic construction (in particular in conjunction with structures derived from the harmonic series, as is often the case in

–  –  –

- Melodies found in other forms of music (such as atonal music or from other cultures such as Africa) often “follow their own rules” with regards to melody given the lack

–  –  –

Given the broad nature of what constitutes a melody, these general points will all be considered over the course of this dissertation when discussing how melody can be applied to the drum set.

1.4 APPLYING MELODY AS A DRUMMER Melody can be expressed on a variety of percussion instruments such as the vibraphone, xylophone, and marimba (among others). Many other percussion instruments found around the world that are designed and tuned in a specific way can express melody in the same capacity.

This is consistent with other common melodically-inclined instruments (for example: the human voice, piano, string, woodwind and brass instruments; that is to say using specific pitches organized in an organized tuning system). But how does the drum set relate to the concept of melody if it doesn’t necessarily have a collection of pitches to draw from in the same way a piano or other instrument does?

The drum set was not initially conceived as an instrument meant to express and interpret melodic ideas. Traditionally the role of the drum set in an ensemble was fundamentally that of being a timekeeper, and the musician used the drums to maintain a steady pulse for the benefit of the entire ensemble. Paul Berliner describes the central rhythmic role of drumming in jazz music and

its historical roots in early jazz bands, commonly used to accompany dancers:

The importance of the drums within jazz groups reflects the general value attached to rhythm in African American musical tradition. Because of the early commercial position of jazz as accompaniment for dancing, the drummer's central function has been to maintain a strong, regular beat within the framework of conventional tempos and meters.

The trap set's performance practices have remained integral to the stylistic evolution of jazz as the music moved from dance halls to nightclubs and concert halls where serious listening was the main attraction for audiences, and danceability no longer imposed its constraints upon performance. At the same time, the practices of contemporary drummers reflect the legacy of their early forerunners.15 The first drum set was assembled during the early 1900s and was actually an evolution of military-style drumming used to accompany early New Orleans brass bands16. The percussion section of these early brass bands was a combination of two drummers - a snare drummer accompanied by a bass drummer. As these two instruments evolved into the first drum set (with two instruments, then more, being played by one drummer) the role of the drummer was still the same. The drummer provided a steady pulse or “beat” for the benefit of the musical ensemble.

However, as jazz music developed, the drum set as an instrument, and the creativity and imagination of drummers themselves, evolved as well. Over the course of jazz history the role and possibilities of the drum set as a musical instrument developed significantly to the point where the drum set could no longer be considered an instrument that exclusively “keeps a beat.” Rather, jazz drumming has developed to a point where the drums can contribute musically to an ensemble at the same level of sophistication and interaction as any other musician or instrument.17 Specific to the topic of this paper, the consideration of the drums as a melodic instrument takes on great significance in terms of exploring the possibilities of the drum set in jazz music, beyond that of being primarily a timekeeper.

Berliner (1994:324) See Daniel Glass’ drum instructional DVD The Century Project:100 Years of American Music from Behind the Drums (1865-1965) (2012) for more information regarding the evolution of the drum set instrument.

The fact that less people danced to jazz music over the course of its evolution is reflective of this phenomenon.

For many, the label of “melodic drumming” might simply infer the concept of literally playing the actual rhythms of a given melody on a drum set or percussion instrument. This translates into the idea of playing a “melodic rhythm” on the drums. In Sayin’ Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (1996), Ingrid Monson points to this interpretation of the concept of “melodic


When drummers speak of playing melodically, at the most basic level they are referring to melodic rhythms – either those that imitate the melody or the soloist’s line of those that form thematic ideas developed by being played at different pitches and timbral levels around the drum set. In addition, great musical variety can be achieved by playing a given rhythmic idea between two or more parts of the drum set tuned in contrast to each other.18 According to Monson, her interpretation of “melodic drumming” implies that when doing so, a drummer is actually using the rhythm of a melody (possibly either from the soloist or the composition itself) combined with contrasting textural and timbral choices offered by the drum set to imply or create a melodic structure on the drums. While there is certainly much more to the concept of playing melodically (and this will be discussed), Monson’s description is a basic and valid approach to this concept and is a good place to start this discussion.

From a technical standpoint, playing literal melodies on the drum set in a specific way (that is to say reflecting specific pitches) is indeed possible but can represent a significant challenge from a simple logistical point of view. The drum set is generally considered to be an instrument of indeterminate pitch. However, it is still possible to discern certain pitches if a drum is tuned properly or high enough. But if a melody were to be played on a drum set, note-for-note, in exactly the same way we expect to hear a melody from, say, a piano then we might require a sufficient number of drums to facilitate this exercise (depending on the complexity of the melody Monson (1996:61) in question and the number of pitches involved, of course). While some drummers have adapted a larger set-up of drums to explore this idea, the logistics of this approach are, for the most part, not necessarily practical.19 This is not to say that using pitch and melody on the drum set in a literal way is not plausible, nor unattainable. Many drummers have developed specific technical approaches that allow them to manipulate a smaller collection of drums in order to create a larger collection of pitches to draw from or at least create the illusion that they have more pitches at their disposal than they actually do.

However, for many drummers the idea of “melodic drumming” goes far beyond just being able to imitate a melodic statement on the drums using its rhythm and approximating the change of

tones or a collection of pitches. Peter Erskine offers his opinion with regard to this:

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