Play Drums? Learn Scales.

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A photo of Jeff Queen.

Having taught all areas of percussion for more than 25 years, I have encountered many students who are very excited about the “drummy” instruments but not overly enthusiastic about melodic percussion.

I would often urge those students to learn their major and minor scales to help develop their ears. This advice was met with varying interest, but those that did learn the scales became far better performers as a result. These players improved because their ears got better—more trained to hear differences in pitch—and they became more acute listeners as a result.

Hearing Music Better

Learning scales will help all types of percussionists become better drummers as well as better musicians overall.

Being able to hear the differences between a half step and whole step, understanding the scale structure, and recognizing various intervals all help you hear music in a deeper fashion than just thinking about the rhythm, or what drums to hit, or which sounds to make on your instrument.

Understanding the Phrase

Knowing the scales will also help with your timing and ability to understand the musical phrase. Most often, if you are playing a non-melodic percussion instrument, you are accompanying a melodic line of some sort. By understanding pitch better, you can get deeper inside the melodic content and the direction of the phrase. Thus you will have a better understanding of your role and how your part actually fits in with the ensemble.

Opening New Opportunities

Not only will learning scales make you a better percussionist and musician, but it might just spur some interest in the rest of the musical/percussive world as well. If I had realized in high school how cool marimba really is, I would have had an extra 15 years of playing it before I went to music school much later in life.

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