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In many musical styles a drum beat is composed of three main elements:

  • Bass drum
  • Snare
  • Hi-Hat

... but more fundamentally, three separate functions that can be performed by other parts of the drum kit or instruments (e.g. the beat of the song can be established by the ride instead of the bass drum).

In the "Strong Songs" podcast, the host calls these functions "thump" (bass drum), "pop" (snare), and "sizzle" (hi-hat). In this video the three functions are called "beat" (bass drum), "engine" (snare) and "constant" (hi-hat).

Is there a more "official" or academic terminology for these three basic functions?

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  • I guess most call them 'kick', 'snare' and 'hi-hat'. And 'ride' and 'crash' for the cymbals, but that's very basic, given the many different ways each can be played, producing different sounds, possibly with the exception of 'kick'.
    – Tim
    Sep 18 at 7:18
  • I mean a name for the more general function in a groove, since e.g. Jazz might use a Ride + Hi-Hat + Cymbal combination... or you could replace them entirely with a bass playing the low part, claps to replace the snare, and a shaker for the Hi Hat. Sep 19 at 11:53
  • Having played in bands for over 60 yrs, I've never heard any particular terms or phrases, only referring to the instruments themselves, by name, as in my last comment. Maybe it's a regional or particular genre thing. Where have you looked so far?
    – Tim
    Sep 19 at 13:00

1 Answer 1

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The backbeat is the only widely used term for a layer of (or role within) a drum groove that I'm aware of. In most popular music, this role is filled by the snare drum. In jazz, it's filled by the hihat (played with the foot). In 4/4, the term refers to the accenting of beats 2 and 4. It would not include any ghost notes because 1) they're not accents, and 2) they're not on 2 or 4. So, for example, if the snare is playing the backbeat, it is not necessarily the case that all snare hits are part of the backbeat layer. As an extreme demonstration of the concept, listen to Tomas Haake of Meshuggah. While the guitars might seem to be in weird and ever-shifting meters, the backbeat is almost always present on the snare to keep your ear oriented.

There are some other widely used terms I can think of, but none has a specific meaning in the context of drumming the way backbeat does. But FWIW, here they are:

By analogy to a heartbeat, the pulse simply refers to the cadence or steady flow of beats (or pulses) perceived by the listener. Pushes, pulls, and rests should not affect the perception of the pulse. It's all of the on beats, in other words. You could also refer to this as the internal rhythm. Generally, your tempo and time signature should be chosen to reflect the pulse. Polyrhythms are essentially just instances where more than one pulse can be discerned at the same time, although there is usually one that is primary while another is used to contrast against it. As for the term's use in drumming, well... er... In a "four on the floor" pattern (eg: think bebop jazz, disco, some EDM, some reggae), the kick drum is playing the pulse. In a basic rock beat (kick on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4), the pulse would be played by the kick and snare collectively. Sometimes the pulse appears on the hihat, ride, or another cymbal if the drummer is riding using quarter notes (or in 8th notes but with clear accents on the quarters). This is common in metal breakdowns. In other styles, sometimes you hear snare side sticks keeping the pulse.

The surface rhythm refers to the cadence of the less significant notes (generally quicker and of shorter duration) laid overtop of the pulse (aka internal rhythm). In popular music, the drummer is usually "riding" on something, be it the hihat, ride, other cymbal, or a floor tom, often in steady 8ths but not necessarily. It's this riding that usually provides the surface rhythm. Ghost notes on the snare would also be part of this layer. This layer affects the groove but is independent of the pulse. You could think of it as being more textural than structural. For a demonstration, listen to Baard Kolstad of Leprous. He almost always maintains a quick and constant 16th note surface rhythm on the hihat and snare while his feet do weird things and his backbeats are often displaced.

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  • An interesting term I've learned in my years of drumming is "lope". I've heard this only from Jeff Porcaro. See youtube.com/watch?v=NMI81yIlT0Q toward the last third. Sep 20 at 19:28
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    @JasonPSallinger Interesting, but I don't think that counts as legit musical terminology. I've never heard of it. Having googled, it appears not to have any dictionary definitions associated with music. I think he's merely drawing an analogy to walking to describe how the music moves.
    – ibonyun
    Sep 20 at 21:13

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