Hearing Musical Time

This week, I want to explore musical time with particular focus on what musicians call feel.

The following is a revised version of a piece I wrote for the English magazine Drummer.  As this concerns listening more than playing, non-drummers may find it of interest.

When non-musicians ask me who my favorite drummers are, they are surprised to hear me list names such as Earl Young, James Gadson, and Al Jackson, of whom they've never heard, or Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr, familiar names but not regarded by these friends as maestros.  None of these drummers are known for their flash.  None of them are Buddy Rich, the name some of these friends may have been expecting me to list first.   My favorite drummers hide their mastery in plain sight.

When playing with other musicians, most of what drummers do is to play a repeating beat that shapes musical time for the ensemble and gives that time texture.  On the surface, it's a simple task, and yet the difference between the average drummer’s backbeat and that of, say, Charlie Watts, is vast.  The problem is, it's hard to talk about (which may be one reason why conversations about the best drummers quickly zero in on those with the fastest hands, a more easily grasped concept).

We need to learn how to listen to and talk about feel, which is therefore the very foundation of musical technique, especially for drummers. Drummers who develop their feel not only improve their drumming, they free the musicians around them to better express their ideas.  The right feel brings those ideas to life; the wrong feel obstructs them, which is why bands go through so many drummers.

Here is a short introduction to how I hear and think about feel.

I.  Hearing the Shape of Time

Understanding feel requires deep listening to recordings of great drumming. This listening will be most useful if you first create some mental images to help you hold on to what you hear.

Let’s start with the idea that musical time can be thought to have shape, a wheel that turns at a rate of once per measure. Thus, the beats of the bar represent points along the edge of the wheel.

Here’s where it gets interesting. A car wheel is a perfect circle, but the wheel of musical feel is not. Though drum machines and computers can shape musical time as a perfect circle (the beats spaced with exact evenness), we humans, thankfully, are not so mechanical. We space the beats unevenly, laying some beats back and pushing others forward.  If you lay back slightly on “two” and “four,” you create the sense of an ovalar wheel, one that labors to get to "two" and "four" but settles more easily into "one" and "three."  As you lay the offbeats further back, you elongate that oval. If you were to skitter about with less regularity, you'd create something more misshaped (which can be cool, too).

You needn’t have a precise grasp of this image to get the gist, which is this: Just as a car with oval wheels would move along with a certain kind of bounce, music gains a certain lilt, bounce, or shakiness depending on how the drummer shapes the wheel of musical time, again according to the spacing of the beats in the bar. Whether nearly circular, elongated, or chaotically jagged, each shape has its virtues. Sometimes a jagged wheel is best!  Though the shaping of this wheel is done unconsciously, how the drummer shapes the wheel has a decisive impact on what musical ideas the other musicians express and the mood attained by the listeners.  As you listen to the following examples, see if you can hear how the playing of simple drumbeats establishes the musical mood.

Three Examples

Let’s briefly compare the feels on three tracks: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” How do these three great drummers—Al Jackson, Charlie Watts, and Ringo Starr— bring these songs to life?


To my ear, Al Jackson’s feel has the roundest shape of the three, closest to being circular because his beats are most evenly spaced. He lays back subtly on “two” and “four,” thus stretching the wheel just a tad and giving the feel a nice pocket. The intimacy of Al Green’s vocal performance on “Let’s Stay Together” benefits from the near-roundness of Al Jackson’s feel, because the rounder the shape of time, the more expressive leeway is given to the singer. (As the wheel shape strays from roundness, the mood becomes more specific, more idiosyncratic.)  The nuance of Al Green’s vocal delivery is thus made possible by the near-roundness of Al Jackson’s time.  (Such vocal subtlety would not be possible if, for instance, a punk drummer rendered the same beat with a clunky feel.)  Still, to the extent that the shape of Jackson’s time varies slightly from perfect roundness, it points the vocal in a particular direction—something softer and relaxed.

On “Tumbling Dice,” Charlie Watts's time is less even, the most elongated shape of these three examples. The slightly more uneven feel creates a mood that is more raucous, one that invites the whole band to dig in.

Consider that the near perfect roundness of Al Jackson’s time on “Let’s Stay Together” would not produce this same effect.  The groove of “Tumbling Dice” has a bit more bite.  Part of that is how the drums are hit (see the next section on Surface) but part of this stems from the shape of the time.  Charlie Watts keeps time with an appropriately drunken herky-jerkiness that perfectly suits what the Stones have to say to the world.

The shape of Ringo’s wheel lies somewhere between the previous two examples.  Again, every difference in wheel shape reflects a tradeoff. Because his time is not so perfectly rounded as that of a session drummer like Al Jackson, Ringo’s feel takes on a more specific personality but leaves more room for interpretation than Charlie Watts does.  (Note that Lennon and McCartney are more nuanced vocalists than Jagger and Richards.  That’s not a value judgment.  Either approach is valid, but it’s worth noting the connection between vocal delivery and drumming.)  By not being so elongated as Charlie’s, Ringo’s sense of time feels more relaxed, less herky-jerky. 

And to complete the comparisons, a rounder sense of time such as Al Jackson’s might be more iconic, but it would remove the distinctive warp of Ringo's time that informs the track.  That warp helps make the Beatles convincingly psychedelic.

Of course, these are all rather crude approximations.  The shapes illustrated above are oversimplifications, but perhaps you get the point.  A drummer's sense of time makes a decisive impact on the music.  Each sense of time comes with tradeoffs, and as you apply the image of a wheel to other listening, you might hear these and other tradeoffs at work.

 II. Hearing the Surface of Time

In addition to its shape, you can think about the surface of the wheel. Just as a car rides differently on rubber tires than it would on wheels of stone, the surface of the wheel of feel has an analogous impact. Thus, as you listen, you should pay attention to such things as accents, the volume balance within the kit, and sound characteristics of the drums and cymbals. These surface elements interact with the shape of the wheel and inflect the feel accordingly.

A crucial element of Al Jackson’s feel on “Let’s Stay Together” is the doubling of the snare drum backbeats with the tom-tom. By giving emphasis to the backbeats, which are  laid back ever so delicately, the addition of the tom calls attention to the subtle stretch of the wheel shape and give the feel slightly more bounce than the snare alone might. The tom’s lower pitch also lends the feel a certain heaviness, perfect for a song about love in crisis.

The “chick-chick” of Charlie Watts’s hi-hat calls attention to the elongated shape of his feel. Imagine the same beat played with the “ding-ding” of a ride cymbal instead. Because the longer decay of a ride cymbal connects the eighth notes together, a ride cymbal would smooth the surface of the wheel and somewhat cloak its distorted shape. As it stands, the faster decay of the hi-hat leaves that shape exposed.

As for Ringo, he is an underappreciated master of touch. The resonance of his loose, chorus rimshots, for example, is crucial to the dreaminess of his feel. Were he to dig in with louder, hacking rim shots, the feel would leave behind its breeziness and take on snarl. To reproduce Ringo’s feel, one would need to reproduce his touch.

Thank you for reading.  The next post will explore these ideas further, comparing the feels of three drummers who played with the same artist.