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Inside the Mind of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Drummer

Delving into the thrilling, demanding world of professional drumming and the mind-body communication it requires

After talking all about artificial intelligence (AI), ChatGPT, and the legal rights of robots, let’s Take Five. Time to follow Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone path and travel to another dimension, of sight, of sound, and of mind. Cue up the vinyl or the mp3s, it’s time to explore rock ‘n’ roll music from the inside.

What practically defines rock ‘n’ roll?  Chuck Berry said it was the “back beat” – the prominent rhythm on beats 2 and 4. It’s the beat you can’t lose, as The Beatles agreedHuey Lewis and the News nailed it: “The heart of rock and roll is the beat.”

Where does the beat come from, the rhythm that defines rock n roll? Not often the guitars, not the occasional sax, horns, or flute. No doubt, the bass guitar can get the toes tapping as in Cream’s “Badge,” or supply a dominating rhythm line, as in Jethro Tull’s “Bourée.” Of course, the bass and piano can define the riff for a whole song, as in Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance.”

Boil it down, however. The heart of rock n roll is the beat. Who delivers the beat? The drummer.

It Starts with Human Fascination

Cued up by Thomas Nagel’s famous article about human consciousness, let’s ask: what is it like to be a rock ‘n’ roll drummer?

I interviewed a longtime friend, Jed Primero, who has played drums nearly his whole life, including professionally, to probe into a drummer’s skills, craft, and mind. Having earned a master’s degree and worked steadily in his long-time field of computer and software systems, Jed is self-aware, thoughtful, and a great communicator.

Unlike what my early school teachers said, real drumming is not just “keeping time” for the musicians. It isn’t just mechanically hitting things with sticks: 1,2,3,4. For Jed and many like him, the drum kit’s many distinct sounds and patterns are awesome. Drums and percussion captivated Jed as a very young boy. Raised in a household regularly filled with what we today call classic and soft rock, Jed always especially heard the drum work. A garage band rehearsing next door captivated him, too. He wanted to replicate what he heard; he tried makeshift drumming, but soon realized there was skill required.

As Robert J. Marks reveals in Non-Computable You (2022), many things that humans think and do are beyond the powers of computers, no matter how powerful they become. Jed’s fascination with drumming from an early age can’t be explained as a sequence of material causes and effects. His mind’s ability to hear a full ensemble playing music but choose to pick out and study the drum work in particular, goes beyond audio pattern and word recognition. His conscious decision to focus and attend to the drum work reflects free will and personal desires and preferences – none of which are computable.

Moving From Dreams to Reality

How does a person go from a fascination with drums and percussion to actually playing on a real drum kit? A drum kit or drum set typically includes a snare drum, a bass drum played with a foot pedal, one or more tom-toms, one or more cymbals, and a “hi-hat” pair of cymbals played with a pedal or sticks. There’s a lot to learn.

Jed Primero suggested a great way to start learning to play the drums. Simply stated: (1) find songs whose drum lines you like, (2) with help from a teacher, learn to play them by ear, and (3) get excited by your progress. Students who love the music will strive to play it. Successfully playing songs you especially like, you find the whole experience goes beyond learning mechanics and unifies with the pleasure of making music.

Other great tools for young drumming enthusiasts to develop some initial skills and a good ear for rock n roll rhythm patterns are – believe it or not – Guitar Hero Drums Expert and Rock Band 4 Pro Drums interactive video simulations. Human instructors expand and refine the learner’s skills and creativity, too, while correcting against bad habits becoming permanent.

The Brain in High Gear

“Playing by ear” requires tremendous mental resources. Listening to professional performances, focusing upon what the other drummers play, figuring out which drum kit elements are used for every “hit,” identifying stylistic rhythm patterns, and memorizing how all of these parts come together to deliver the unique sound of a particular song – that’s real work. Drummers do such work constantly.

And never forget: The drummer must coordinate one foot hitting the bass drum, another foot occasionally playing the hi-hat cymbal, and the two hands either together presenting a pattern (like a drum roll) or one maintaining a riff while the other hits “taps,” “accents” or syncopated beats on other instruments to add color, slow down or speed up the “feel,” and coordinate with the bass guitar and other instruments to add variety and interest throughout the performance. Oh, yeah – all of this stuff has to stay precisely on the beat!

Mind-Body Connection: Muscle Memory

Jed emphasized the importance of “muscle memory” – the phenomenon where the brain programs itself to operate the bass drum, for example, or coordinates the feet and hands into a rhythmic pattern. Serious practice delivers results. The drummer can essentially “tell” the brain to “lay down a reggae beat” or a “blues shuffle,” and the feet and hands deliver the patterns almost unconsciously. 

Muscle memory also empowers the drummer to just think about a “fill” at a certain point in the music, for example, to complement what the rest of the band is doing. Other times, muscle memory lets the drummer deliver a basic repeated pattern that defines the song. A classic example is The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”, covered by The Ventures, both in 1963. Another path-breaker: “Take Five,” performed by Paul Desmond and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Jed explained that as you learn to play, especially if you’re dedicated to doing it right, you expand to learn to create and read the written scores for formalized drumming. That adds rigor and precision to how the player thinks about the “math” of drumming, especially with complicated rhythm patterns.

Another key skill in jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll especially, is for the drummer to get into “the pocket” with the bass player. The two musicians will both watch and listen to one another to coordinate the rhythmic lines to give a seamless feel to the melodic and rhythmic foundation for the rest of the song. A prime example of the pocket: Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.”

Truly wonderful drumming creativity that can “make” a song while not smothering it – that’s what the skills and artistry can really do. One great example is Ringo Starr’s kit-traversing riff in The Beatles’ “Come Together,” where he moves across toms and later adds cymbals for a mini-crescendo effect. Another is Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” with its bongos, light toms, and simple percussion that suddenly shifts to a driving power line of bass drum, toms, snares, and cymbals (at the auspicious timestamp of 3:16).

Behind the Cool Shades – Mental Dynamo in Action

With continued experience in rehearsals and live performances, Jed developed the ability to play a song that he had not previously played, or had not known, by listening to what the other instruments and vocals were doing, and taking suggestions from other band members. He met these challenges head-on and prevailed when he played, for example, with the alternative rock band, Manufactured Defects. Jed’s mind would fetch a kind of mental “template” of muscle-memory styles, and then add fills, accents, and variations to add interest or build tension.

During a performance, the drummer’s mind is running constantly, almost always without sheet music, listening to the rest of the band to make the drumming add value without needless distraction. In some ways, professional rock n roll drumming is a dynamic three-ring circus of the mind.

Hosanna, Rosanna and Krupa

Headphone time: Check out the all-time favorite example of a drummer’s laying down a dominating beat with repeated figures in Gene Krupa’s pathbreaking work on the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s iconic swing-jazz performance of “Sing Sing Sing” (1937). Krupa’s styles and techniques prime you for exploring and enjoying the features appearing in jazz and rock n roll. Hear Krupa lay down the signature rhythm (0:00, 1:20, 1:52, 2:18), shine on his own (3:03), underlie Goodman’s unforgettable clarinet solo (7:30), tastefully showcase the lovely piano work (9:25), and amp up to full power for the finale (11:40).

Jed admires the subtly amazing drum work and percussion on “Hosanna,” performed by Hillsong United. There the drums and percussion lay down a high-energy drive (0:37) to frame a contemplative, slower tempo, vocal worship song in a full rock ensemble.  Hear the percussion emerge from the gentlest touches to commanding power (4:42- 5:44), echoing back to the initial riff to walk it out.

Jed pointed to the legendary “Rosanna” by Toto, a world-class example of drumming from start to finish. The “back beat” maintains throughout the complex performance while the drums and percussion develop intricacies almost impossible to describe. Rick Beato, musicologist extraordinaire, explores “Rosanna” in detail, showing how fundamental are the drums and percussion to the rock masterpiece.  

Digging deep into Jed Primero’s thoughts reveals the thrilling, demanding world of professional drumming. We see countless examples of mind-body communications, intellectual processing, emotional connection with the rhythm and music, non-verbal interpersonal signaling during performances, and awe-inspiring giga bytes of music information stored for countless memorized patterns and actual songs. Real drumming means non-stop, real-time, dynamic decisions and actions using complex information deployed via physical sticks and targets. As the Beatniks used to say, “It’s, like, wow, man.”

Richard Stevens

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Richard W. Stevens is a lawyer, author, and a Fellow of Discovery Institute's Walter Bradley Center on Natural and Artificial Intelligence. He has written extensively on how code and software systems evidence intelligent design in biological systems. He holds a J.D. with high honors from the University of San Diego Law School and a computer science degree from UC San Diego. Richard has practiced civil and administrative law litigation in California and Washington D.C., taught legal research and writing at George Washington University and George Mason University law schools, and now specializes in writing dispositive motion and appellate briefs. He has authored or co-authored four books, and has written numerous articles and spoken on subjects including legal writing, economics, the Bill of Rights and Christian apologetics. His fifth book, Investigation Defense, is forthcoming.

Inside the Mind of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Drummer