The drum set as melody instrument       

Although rhythm is the drum sets primary mode of expression, contemporary jazz drummers can produce distinct melodies with the instrument.[1]  This expanded musical range means that the drum set can no longer neatly fit into the category of an unpitched percussion instrument, demanding a broader understanding of the basic nature of the drum set, as well as pointing to its future potential as a melody instrument.  In order to establish that the drum set should be re-evaluated in this fashion, two main questions need to be addressed: First, is the drum set physically capable of producing a melody?  And second, if the drum set is in fact capable of producing a melody, is melodic drumming a significant enough musical trend to justify this consideration?

Pitched vs. unpitched percussion

Based on the current consensus that the drum set is an unpitched percussion instrument, the answer to the first question would seem to be no.  Melody is defined in Grove Music Online as, “Pitched sounds arranged in time in accordance with given cultural conventions and restraints”.[2]   So a precondition of an instrument producing a melody is being able to produce pitches.  If the drum set is in fact unable to produce pitches, than there is no way it could be thought of as melodic in this sense. 

Percussion instruments are generally split into two discrete categories: pitched and unpitched.[3]  The drum set is not a single instrument, but rather a collection of instruments.  Nevertheless, it is conventionally thought of as an unpitched percussion instrument since all of its component parts (snare drum, tom-tom, bass drum, and cymbals) are classified as unpitched.[4] In order to understand what criteria are used to put a percussion instrument into one of these categories, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the terms pitched and unpitched.

A pitched percussion instrument is one that produces a definite pitch, meaning a pitch that a listener can relatively easily place into a frequency-based scale.[5]  Part of the reason why definite pitches have this property is because their harmonic frequency spectra are close to harmonic spectra.[6]  This means that the frequencies present in a definite pitch are close to mathematically basic ratios like 2:1. 

An unpitched percussion instrument is one that produces an indefinite pitch, meaning a pitch that a listener finds impossible or extremely difficult to place into a frequency-based scale.[7]  Part of the reason for this difficulty is that indefinite pitches either do not have harmonic frequency spectra or they have an altered one.[8]  An altered harmonic frequency spectra simply means frequencies that don’t have a basic mathematical relationship like 2:1.  To be clear, just because an instrument has indefinite pitch does not mean that it can’t have sounds with recognizably lower and higher pitch, just that these sounds are not easy to place into a frequency-based scale.[9]

The drum set doesn't have to be unpitched

All that being said, the problem with defining the drum set as unpitched is that each of the component parts of the drum set is considered pitched in certain situations. 

The snare drum for example is classified as unpitched for the following reasons: the snare wires’ buzz makes white noise that masks pitch, the two membranes of the drum have conflicting fundamental frequency/harmonic spectra, and pitches of the drum are unrelated to pitches played in the rest of the ensemble.[10] 

On the surface these all seem like convincing reasons why this drum should be thought of as unpitched, but if you dig a little deeper inconsistencies appear.  First of all, modern snare drums have the ability to turn off the snare wires, and doing this allows the drum to have a much clearer fundamental frequency/pitch.  Secondly, the interaction of the two membranes of the drum can mask pitch, but this has more to do with how you tune them in relation to each other, and not some fundamental characteristic of a drum having two membranes.[11]  There are numerous examples of drums with two membranes around the world that produce very clear definite pitch.   One brilliant example of this type of this is the Entenga drum from Uganda.[12]  Finally, the last point about the snare drum not having definite pitch because its pitch doesn’t relate to the rest of the ensemble has nothing to do with the physical properties of the drum, it simply has to do with traditional performance practice.  In other words, if someone hypothetically chose to tune the snare drum to a pitch that did relate to the rest of the ensemble they easily could, and in fact they frequently do.[13]

All these same arguments can be made about the pitch classification of all of the drums in the drum set, with some slight modifications.  The bass drum for example which is classified as unpitched in the context of the drum set, is considered a pitched percussion instrument in the context of a marching band.[14]  The tom-toms are very similar to the snare drum in size and makeup, and do not have the impediment of snare wires to mask their pitch.[15] 

One other important note about all these drums is that how they are played matters a great deal in terms of their ability to produce a definite pitch.  Any drum that is struck with a mallet as opposed to a stick produces a significantly clearer pitch for example.[16]  Similarly, any percussion instrument that is traditionally thought of as pitched will have its pitch significantly obscured by being struck with a drumstick as opposed to a mallet.

To summarize, all the component instruments of the drum set that are classified as unpitched can be pitched when played in a certain fashion or context.  This means that there is no objective physical reason why the drum set should be classified as an unpitched percussion instrument.  One very reasonable question to ask at this point is, if the drum set is in fact capable of producing definite pitches and playing a melody, why don’t people perceive it as capable of doing this?


In the pioneering acoustic work of Hermann von Helmholtz in the early 20th century, a direct correlation between frequency and perceived pitch was believed to exist.[17]  In other words, Helmoltz believed that a change in frequency corresponded exactly to a change in perceived pitch, and the closer to harmonic spectra a pitch got the clearer the pitch would be.

However subsequent research, particularly in the fields of cognitive psychology and psychoacoustics revealed that a number of other factors strongly influenced pitch perception.[18]  These factors boil down to the subjective musical, environmental, and cultural context of the individual listener.[19]  In other words, depending on these factors different people could hear the same frequency as a different pitch.  There is currently no scientific consensus on exactly what causes people to hear certain pitches the way they do, but one thing that has become increasingly clear is that a persons expectations strongly influence their perception of pitch.[20] 

Since its invention in the early 20th century for use in jazz bands, the drum set has been used primarily for maintaining a steady, danceable pulse.[21]  This traditional, exclusively rhythmic role of the drum set has over time created an expectation for listeners that the drum set will only be used in this fashion.  This expectation in turn creates a sort of aural bias that the drum set cannot be played melodically.  Because of the fundamental subjectivity of pitch perception discussed above, a listener’s expectation of what an instrument does largely defines what that instrument can do for that particular listener. 

The role of melodic drumming in jazz

Because the drum set can produce definite pitches and consequently could theoretically be used to play a melody, the next question is whether or not melodic drumming is a significant enough musical trend to merit reclassification of the instrument.  In fact, although its role in jazz is not widely discussed or studied, melodic drumming is central to this entire genre of music.  To illustrate this point, a brief history of the evolution of the drum set and its primary innovators reveals the central importance of melodic drumming to jazz. 

There are two types of melodic drumming in jazz.  The main type, which I refer to as “implied melodic drumming”, means using the large-scale techniques of musical architecture like form and head-solo-head order, as well as the small-scale melodic phrasing techniques of contour, dynamics, repetition, use of space, thematic development, and call-and-response to create tension and release just like a melody instrument would.  Importantly, this type of melodic drumming does not involve using definite pitches.  The second type of melodic drumming that I refer to as “explicit melodic drumming”, uses all the techniques discussed above, but with definite pitches.

the evolution of implied melodic drumming

Implied melodic drumming has been central to the development of the drum set, and to jazz music in general.  As jazz music has evolved, the role of the drums has become increasingly prominent.[22]   In fact, the drums have undergone perhaps the most radical change in role of any instrument in jazz music over the course of the last century.  From it’s beginning as a relatively limited accompanying instrument in the early jazz of New Orleans, all the way to contemporary jazz where the drums play an almost continuously improvised co-leading role. 

The primary indication of this expanded role is the degree to which the drums have a melodic as well as rhythmic function within an ensemble.   This expansion in the melodic role of the drummer has had a tremendous impact on jazz music generally; particularly in terms of rhythmic innovation and the way it brings the drums to the foreground of the music.

It is impossible to say for certain how far back the tradition of melodic drumming goes, but it is certainly the case that like most of jazz drumming its lineage can be traced to Africa.[23]  Of course there are no recordings of ancient African drumming, but based on some contemporary melodic drumming practices on instruments like talking drums or drum chimes, as well as the prominent role of the drum in most African music, it is certainly possible that early melodic jazz drummers were inspired by their heritage.[24] 

Baby dodds

One of the first drummers to express this heritage of melodic drumming was Baby Dodds, who is widely considered one of if not the first great jazz drummer.  In addition, he is also one of the first recorded drummers with a clear connection to the African drumming tradition.  According to Rudi Blesh, Dodd’s maternal great- grandfather would play talking drums for the family, and passed some of the traditional African rhythms to Dodds directly.[25] 

Dodds’ most famous recordings are with Lois Armstrong and the Hot Sevens.  Partly due to the limitations of recording technology at the time, Dodd’s primarily played a time-keeping and rhythmic function on all early recordings.  Dodds’ drumming was only occasionally featured in short breaks, but even playing without a bass drum Dodds still managed to interact with the melody instruments in a meaningful way.[26] 

In his later recordings, the full scope of his melodicism becomes much more apparent.  Gene Krupa, who was strongly influenced by Dodds, said he not only expanded the role of the drums beyond time-keeping, but that he could make you hear the melody of a tune on the drums.[27]  Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this type of melodic drumming is Dodds’ playing in the first ever drum instructional video recorded in 1946.  During one of the sections of this film called “Tom-Tom Solo With Foot Muffle”, Dodds plays an entire solo on the floor tom while bending the pitch of the drum with his foot.[28]  Interestingly, a pianist playing “Tea For Two” accompanies him and you can clearly hear the melody from both the piano and drums. 

Papa jo jones

The next major stylistic evolution in jazz drumming came from the drummer for the famous Count Basie Orchestra, Papa Jo Jones, who was primarily responsible for liberating the time feel of the drums by moving the main time-keeping instrument from the bass and snare to the hihat.[29]  This innovation shifted more of the time-keeping responsibility to the bass player, and freed the drummer to interact and play more melodically. 

Although his early recordings with the Basie band feature him in a relatively limited accompaniment role with only occasional solo breaks, the short solos he does play are full of sophisticated phrasing that anticipate the style of bebop drummers to come.[30]  Some of his later recordings, for example “Caravan” and “Cubano Chant” from his own album “The Essential Jo Jones” feature more of his soloing, and reveal the depth of his melodic concept.[31]  

Max roach

Max Roach, who was strongly influenced by Papa Jo Jones, did more than any other drummer before him to uncover the melodic potential of the instrument, and in doing so revolutionized the way that people approached and thought of the instrument.  His landmark solo drum recording, “For Big Sid” presented an entire piece of music with just the drums.[32] 

Roach’s performance on “For Big Sid” is a model of implied melodic drumming techniques.  From the opening descending phrase the solo has clear large and small-scale melodic content.  Not only does Roach follow a head-solo-head order and maintain a clear AABA form, he also uses the theme of the melody throughout his solo and makes extensive use of other small-scale melodic techniques like call and response.  By his masterful manipulation of these implied melodic techniques, Roach is able to generate tension and release throughout the piece, making it a classic example of melodic drumming.

In terms of Roach’s role in the evolution of the drums, he represents the first time that they could be considered the lead instrument in a piece of music; not as a drum feature or gimmick but as a legitimate melodic instrument.  The New York Times in its August, 2007 obituary of Roach put it this way:

In Mr. Roach’s hands, the drum kit became much more than a means of keeping time. He saw himself as a full-fledged member of the front line, not simply as a supporting player.  Layering rhythms on top of rhythms, he paid as much attention to a song’s melody as to its beat.

Chip Stern put it this way, “By liberating drummers from one-dimensional timekeeping duties, Max Roach became the Godfather of modern jazz drumming”.[33]  In other words, largely because of Roach’s pioneering insistence on treating the drums as a melodic instrument, he was able to significantly raise the profile of the instrument and influence generations of future drummers.

Roy Haynes

Roy Haynes was another bebop drummer and contemporary of Max Roach who was strongly influenced by Jo Jones, and who went on to be an innovative and highly influential presence on the jazz scene from the 1940’s to the present.[34]  Haynes was also a very melodic drummer, as evidenced by his performance on “In Walked Bud” from the Thelonious Monk album “Misterioso”.  This solo, like “For Big Sid” is a watershed moment in the history of melodic drumming.[35]  The solo begins with one chorus where Haynes quotes the melody of the tune nearly verbatim on the drums.  Although Haynes does not go so far as trying to produce actual pitches on the drums, he gets as close to explicitly melodic drumming as it possible to go without quite crossing that boundary. 

Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones represents the first major stylistic evolution of the drums after bebop.  His incredible playing in the classic John Coltrane quartet largely defines the role of the contemporary jazz drummer.  In addition to being rhythmically dense and spread across the entire drum set, it is also clear that Jones’ playing is very melodic.[36]  In an interview from “Different Drummer: Elvin Jones” Jones explains and demonstrates how he would solo over the relatively simple melody of “Three Card Molly”.[37]  He starts by playing the melody in a very straightforward fashion on the snare drum, before taking the melody and improvising with it over the whole drum set.  In this solo improvisation, the original melody becomes very abstracted, much like John Coltrane might abstract the original melody of a song in his solo. 

This gets at an important point about melodic drumming which is that just because a drummer is playing off of or being inspired by a melody, it doesn’t mean that an audience is going to understand what is going on.  In fact, more often than not an audience cannot hear or even imagine a drummer playing a melody because they are not used to thinking of the drums as a melodic instrument. 

This aural bias that was explained earlier in the paper, produces a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; because people don’t think that the drums can play a melody, they won’t hear the melody in what the drums play.  Nonetheless, the key with implied melodic drumming is not whether an audience can hear the melody in what the drums are playing, but rather what is going on in the drummers head.  The great Shelly Manne put it very well, “Instead of letting the rhythm imply its own melody, my concept is to play melodically and allow the melody to create rhythm…Improvisation is the result of melodic, not rhythmic thinking.”[38] 

Jones’ playing in Coltranes quartet was so critical to the overall sound of the group, and so full of melodic richness, that the piano and bass would often drop out of songs entirely, allowing Coltrane and Jones to pursue their dialogue unhindered.  A perfect example of this kind of duet is their performance of “Impressions” on the TV show “Jazz Casual” from 1963.[39]  One of the fascinating aspects of this duet that also underscores the point about Jones’ melodicism is that even though there are only two instruments playing, there is no sense of the music lacking anything.  If either Coltrane’s rhythmic sense or Jones’ melodicism were not fully developed, this type of duet would be unable to sustain the listeners interest.

Explicit Melodic drumming

It is clear from this brief history that implied melodic drumming has been one of the central drivers of the evolution of jazz drumming.  It has also led to the point where contemporary drummers like Jeff Hamilton and Ari Hoenig use all the techniques of implied melodic drumming, but with actual definite pitches.  Although this explicit melodic drumming is a relatively recent phenomenon in jazz, it is certainly possible that it too can be traced back to ancient African drum tradition mentioned earlier.  What is definitely clear is that this explicit melodic drumming is a natural evolution of the much more prevalent implied melodic drumming tradition, and that it is playing an increasingly important role in jazz.

Two excellent examples of explicit melodic drumming are Jeff Hamilton’s performance of “A Night In Tunisia” and Ari Hoenig’s performance of “Moanin’”.[40][41]  In both of these cases the melody is startlingly clear, as well as musically compelling.  So much so in fact that in the case of Hamilton’s performance, a transcription of the drum solo had to include exact pitches!

The long and important history of implied melodic drumming, as well as the relatively recent and exciting emergence of explicit melodic drumming, conclusively show that melodic drumming is an important enough trend to justify re-examining how we hear and talk about the drum set.


Because the perception of pitch and melody is partially subjective, the main reason that the drum set is considered unpitched is that it has been played in a primarily rhythmic fashion up to this point.  The evolution of the drum set in jazz has brought the instrument to the point where it needs to be reconsidered as a definite pitched, melodic instrument.  To answer the two questions posed at the beginning of the paper, the drum set is physically capable of producing a melody, and it is being used to do just that.  In my opinion, the drum set may need a new classification, perhaps “conditionally pitched”, to describe its relatively unique ability to move between the worlds of pitched and unpitched percussion instruments.




[1] Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gunther Huesmann, The Jazz Book (Chicago: Laurence Hill, 2009), p. 473.

[2] Alexander Ringer, “Melody”, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Web, (accessed 29 April 2014).

[3] Harry Olson, Music, Physics, and Engineering (McGraw-Hill, 1967) p. 109.

[4] ibid, p. 109

[5] ibid p. 248.

[6] Adrianus Houtsma, “Pitch Perception”, Hearing (San Diego, CA: Academic, 1995), p. 267.

[7] Thomas Rossing, The Science of Percussion Instruments (Singapore: World Scientific, 2000), p. 26.

[8] Houtsma, op. cit., p. 267.

[9] Rossing, op.cit., p. 1.

[10] Rossing, op. cit., pp. 27-28.

[11] Rob Toulson, “The Perception And Importance Of Drum Tuning In Live Performance And Music Production”, Journal on the Art of Record Production, September 2013.

[12] The Singing Wells Project , “Namaddu Troupe- Drum Solo.” Youtube, Flash Video File, (accessed April 23, 2014).

[13] Toulson, op. cit.

[14] Wayne Bailey, The Complete Marching Band Resource Manual (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 2003), p. 131.

[15] Rossing, op. cit., p. 28.

[16] Rossing, op. cit., p. 62.

[17] Ian Cross, “Perception and Cognition”, Grove Music Online, Website, (accessed April 29, 2014).

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Theodore Brown, A History And Analysis Of Jazz Drumming To 1942 (PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1976), p. 96.

[22] Berendt, op. cit., p. 499.

[23] Brown, op. cit., p. 3.

[24] The Singing Wells Project , “Namaddu Troupe- Drum Solo”, Youtube, Flash Video File, (accessed April 23, 2014).

[25] Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets (New York: Knopf, 1946), p. 157.

[26] Brown, op. cit., pp. 217-222.

[27] Brown, op. cit., p. 205.

[28] Warren “Baby” Dodds, “Tom-Tom Solo With Foot Muffle” Youtube. Flash Video File. (accessed April 23, 2014).

[29] Brown, op. cit., p. 444.

[30] Brown, ibid., p.448.

[31]Ray Bryant, Cubano Chant, Jonathan “Jo” Jones, Vangaurd, MP3, 1977.

[32] Max Roach, For Big Sid, Max Roach, Atlantic, MP3, 1966.

[33] Chip Stern, “The Max Factor”, Traps, December 2006, p. 45.

[34] Bill Milkowski, “The Renaissance of Roy”, Traps, January 2007, p. 33.

[35] Thelonious Monk, In Walked Bud, Roy Haynes, Riverside, MP3, 1958.

[36] Barry Elms, Elvin Jones: Defining His Essential Contributions To Jazz (M.A. Thesis, Toronto, 2005), p. 25.

[37] Ed Gray, “Elvin Jones: Different Drummer”, YouTube, Flash Video File, (accessed April 23, 2014).

[38] Ron Spagnardi, Great Jazz Drummers (Cedar Grove, New Jersey: Modern Drummer, 1992), p. 55.

[39] Ralph Gleason, “John Coltrane Quartet- Impressions”, Youtube, Flash Video File, (accessed April 29, 2014).

[40] Dizzy Gillespie, A Night In Tunisia, Jeff Hamilton, Mons, MP3, 2007.

[41] Bobby Timmons, Moanin’, Arig Hoenig, Naïve, MP3, 2011.

[42] Rodrigo Villanueva, “Jeff Hamilton’s Melodic Approach”, Percussive Notes (February, 2007), pp. 16-23 .


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