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I noticed how there's not a lot of drums in orchestral classical music, in comparison to today's beat-based music. Do they get away with that in the orchestra by having instruments in the bass range act as drums. So the bass instruments (double bass, cello, etc) provide the rhythmic component to the song? And is that true for a song that doesn't have a steady drum beat, because sometimes a steady drum beat can be overbearing in a melodic (think classical music) song. In that case do bass instruments take the role of the drums?

For example, in Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2 there's a bass that sets the rhythm of the waltz.

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    What do you mean "get away with that"? Can you give an example where an orchestra got away with something? What was the achievement they were able to do without having a lot of drums? – piiperi Oct 2 at 19:31
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    @piiperi maybe bad choice of words, I meant they use the bass as a way to provide rhythm. – foreyez Oct 2 at 19:32
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    Every instrument provides rhythm. Every sound you make has a rhythm, unless it has an extremely slow attack. Every instrument is capable of ruining the groove for everyone else. Flute, piano, violins, choir, you name it. Can you give an example of music that does not have rhythm? – piiperi Oct 2 at 19:49
  • @piiperi good point. I thought it was mainly the lower range instruments that provide rhythm. this may be a good answer rather than a comment. – foreyez Oct 2 at 19:51
  • The opening of Brahms's first symphony is probably as close as you will get to a pop music-like steady drum rhythm in pre-20th century classical music. youtube.com/watch?v=BRdEgS_OHAk – Your Uncle Bob Oct 2 at 19:55
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The relative dearth of percussion in classical music versus rock is part of what makes those genres sound different. Nothing takes on the role of a drum kit in the classical orchestra. That role remains empty and that’s part of the sound.

When a more percussive sound is desired in the classical orchestra, then percussion instruments are used. These include timpani, cymbals, and triangle in the classical era, and more popular during the romantic era (but not totally unknown in the classical era) are many other instruments, including snare drum, bass drum, slaps, tambourine, bells of various kinds, and many flavors of pitched percussion such as glockenspiel and xylophone.

  • Still, remember that ochestral percussion very rarely sets the beat. Even when you want to have a beat, you do it with other instruments (not only bass or tuba, but also e.g. ostinato strings). – yo' Oct 4 at 21:55
  • @B.Goddard I really want to put your claim to the test. I just need to find some rock songs with the drums removed. – WaterMolecule Oct 4 at 23:11
  • @WaterMolecule Find the most popular rock songs. Stairway to Heaven. James Taylor's stuff. Hotel California. – B. Goddard Oct 4 at 23:17
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    If Zeppelin removed the drums from Moby Dick they'd get sued by John Cage. – hobbs Oct 5 at 1:00
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    @B.Goddard May a good rock song has gone downhill after a great guitar intro; and it has a lot to do with the drums suddenly masking everything. Sometimes it's the reverse though. – Kaz Oct 5 at 23:43
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In general "classical" music usually has less of a "strict time" feeling than music that typically uses percussion heavily. That's one reason that a conductor is there - to define the time feel, cue sections and so on.

But when a composer wants to make the listener aware of strict time, they can and do use percussion - something like Ravel's Bolero being an obvious example, with that snare figure throughout the piece. Other works could use bass or indeed a repeating melodic motif for the same function (think of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th for instance).

(Of course you won't find trap drums in older classical music, simply because they didn't develop until the early 20th century. But modern composers use all kinds of percussion, even electronic.)

(As an aside, note that in jazz, the bass often takes the "time keeper" role, leaving the drummer free to add rhythmic punctuation - or just try to confuse everyone ;-) So even outside "classical" music, the roles of drums and percussion are far from fixed.)

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    I would modify to say "...when a composer does want the audience to be aware of strict time..." . – Carl Witthoft Oct 3 at 14:16
  • good idea! noted – danmcb Oct 3 at 14:42
  • There are even examples in rock music: in reggae the drums are often heavily syncopated and the "on-the-beat" rhythms come from the base. You can also listen to Stewart Copeland of the Police who often uses similar technniques. – Curt J. Sampson Oct 4 at 4:04
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Every instrument provides rhythm. Every sound you make has a rhythm, unless it has an extremely slow attack. Even chord changes have a rhythmic impact, and the timing of harmonic changes is felt in relation to everything else that's happening in the music. It seems to be a common misconception that a drummer makes the groove and all other players are free to pour any sort of timing mush on top of it. Not at all! Every instrument is capable of ruining the groove for everyone else. Flute, piano, violins, choir, you name it.

A good swinging rhythm has ups and downs, highs and lows, attacks and releases, and basses can provide some of that. Low instruments have a certain role in the big picture, but any instrument with a sharp percussive attack can work somewhat like a drum.

Here's a small example, sequencing orchestral sounds, deliberately starting with non-bass and softer instruments. At what point do you feel there's rhythm? Myself, I'm in the groove from the first measure.

It's of course just a bunch of samples, tightly sequenced, machine-like timing etc. and I didn't put the sounds in a virtual hall because it would have just made it mushy. Could an actual orchestra play like that? Beats me. At least there are extremely groovy violin sections on soul and R&B records! And the same goes with flutes and pianos. But it must be kind of difficult to sound like a Motown studio album when you're on a wide stage in a big hall, conducted by someone with a baton, and ... playing classical music, which isn't actually supposed to sound like Motown.

The thing about modern electronic pop music is that due to technological advancements (or "advancements" depending on how you see it), all kinds of sonic phenomena can be emphasized to be arbitrarily and unnaturally strong. Timing can be machine-like perfect all the time, attacks can be sharp all the time, everything can be incredibly loud and punchy at the same time, the whole soundscape can be made to pump in rhythm with the kick drum, etc. Anything that you can feel, can be distilled and synthesized to feel much stronger. Just look at many questions here, people want to find formulas and rules to musical phenomena so they could turn all knobs to 11, without having to actually learn music.

Maybe there's another question behind this: how can anyone be interested in listening to orchestral music played by actual people, when there are so much stronger artificially enhanced synthetic sensations available?

  • "how can anyone be interested in listening to orchestral music played by actual people, when there are so much stronger artificially enhanced synthetic sensations available?" - to me a well recorded band or musician is almost always more interesting. Of course there is music that suits machines more, but that music itself tends to take on a kind of machine like quality, I've noticed. For instance, a Stax or Cannonball Adderley rhythm section just grooves way harder than anything I've heard come out of a computer. Light years better. But I guess it's a matter of taste. – danmcb Oct 3 at 14:44
  • @dmb It was naturally a rhetorical question. Groove makes you move, and music can move you on many different levels. Sometimes it requires human touch to be moving. – piiperi Oct 3 at 18:11
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So the bass instruments (double bass, cello, etc) provide the rhythmic component to the song?

In most classical music with a tune and a harmonic accompaniment the bass instruments play the root notes and change of 4th on-beat, while the the middle voices are playing the off-beat rhythm to the melody played by the smaller instruments.

So it is correct to compare the rhythmic function of the double bass or the tuba with the bass drum and the alt and tenor voices with the snare - like the left hand of the piano is playing the bass (drum) and the chords are often played (left or right hand) and representing the snare or hi-hat rhythm.

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we have just to compare this piano sheet music with the following drum patterns:

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The distribution of the rhythmic functions like described above is obvious. In an orchestral instrumentation the bass instruments are playing the same role, of course not in all music and in all cases.

Edit:

  1. Notice that the rhythmic touch is reinforced when the bass (string) instruments are playing pizzicato. Especially in a Waltz the Bass can provide the rhythmic impulse - together with other instruments.

  2. I agree with Todd Wilcox that the drum-set can't be replaced in an orchestra. I always felt that this difference was one critical reason that pupils didn't like as much classic music. It seems to be as it was for them like a salad without a sauce. When I played a classic piece e.g. with band-in-a-box or with piano and add a drum set a lot of people can hardly hear the difference. (POP-classic or Play Bach).

  • However, the rhythm in the bass may not be the same as the midrange or lead part rhythms. Two vs. three; hemiola, and so on. – Carl Witthoft Oct 3 at 14:17
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Tango music typically does not use drums. (Older Argentine orchestras for example.) Lots of European and American orchestras do use lots of percussion with a tango. Here's a typical Argentine dance orchestra.

And here's a German (I think) dance orchestra playing the same piece.

Note that Strasser uses snare drums to emphasize the arrastre (the notes connecting the fourth beat with the first beat of the next measure.) Argentine orchestras often use bass and cello on the arrastre by increasing the bow speed (not pressure) on the notes. Snares are common in the US and Europe. (I use the piano in 32nd notes for a similar effect.)

In Latin (and for that matter most Smooth) dance orchestras, the bass and drums work together. Either can be used to mark out a rhythm. Older Cuban music uses a combination of bongo, conga, timbale, guiro, clavve, maracas, cowbells, etc. for part of the rhythm; the bass and piano the produce a harmonic background. (Others play the melody.)

Any way is OK if it sounds good.

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It's not "classical", but it illustrates the concept. Below is Reflections of Earth, by Gavin Greenaway, which was used as the fireworks music for Epcot between 2000 and 2019.

The piece takes you through a wide range of styles over its 9-ish minute duration. The first and last thirds are highly rhythmic, and you'll notice that through much of those portions (as well as some portions of the slower middle section), the rhythm is provided primarily by the articulations in the strings (and, to some extent, brass). Percussion is certainly present, but it serves more to color the rhythm and provide emphasis than it does to directly communicate the rhythm.

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