Linux, musical road-dogging, and daily life by Paul W. Frields
Shock to the system.

Shock to the system.

I had a rehearsal recently with members of another band, with whom I will be doing a few performances later this year. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, because I have been playing for so long with my drummer and musical partner in crime, Rich, that it’s always weird to play with another drummer. This other band’s drummer is (I believe) a younger guy than Rich, and tends to suffer from an affliction common to many younger drummers — the tendency to overplay.

Young musicians tend to fixate on trying to mimic the flashiest players. Flash is a big attention-getter. But what many of them fail to realize is that increasing the complexity of a part also increases the overall business of an arrangement. Arrangements are distinguished not just by the notes therein, but also by the judicious use of silence, or absence of notes. If you’ve seen the movie Amadeus, you probably remember the scene where the jealous courtier accuses a young Mozart of using “too many notes” in a new work. While I would hesitate to say that this accusation has any basis in the specific case of Mozart, it is in fact possible for popular music arrangements to have too many notes.

Because of the way the ear perceives rhythm and tone, this “TMN” problem tends to manifest in percussion and bass parts first. When drummers or bass players contract TMN Syndrome, the music quickly becomes wearying to the ear, less easy to enjoy, and also more difficult in which to discern a pulse. When I say “pulse,” I mean the underlying musical guide, whether a beat or some other sort of cue by which one can groove. Whether you groove by playing along, dancing, toe-tapping, rocking, or just sensing subconsciously, doing so is much more difficult when music is too busy.

There are plenty of examples of music for which TMN doesn’t represent a problem. (Rush and other prog-rock bands come to mind, as well as heavier speed metal.) But when a singer/songwriter band exhibits symptoms of TMN, that’s a big problem. This sort of work requires attention to the vocal melody, harmony, and lyrics, and the rest of the band is meant to support that effort, not attract attention away from it.

For the most part, bass parts should at least emphasize the kick drum beat. On any kick beat, there should usually be a bass note as well — this is the key to a tight rhythm section that even non-musician listeners notice, even if only subconsciously. Being a bass player makes me very sensitive to drummers who overplay, because their kick drum parts tend to be unnecessarily complex in a way that detracts from the presentation of the songs they’re playing. There are many tricks in the bass player’s bag, however, to help counter this problem or at least minimize its effect on a song, some of which I employed in rehearsal to steer the arrangements into something that listeners would enjoy more. The TMN symptoms I heard during our rehearsal included:

  • busy kick drum parts that, when added in with a bass and two other guitars, would tend to boost the overall volume of the band unnecessarily;
  • overly complex fills occurring every second measure, or even every measure in a few cases; and
  • interpretation of every guitar solo section as an “instrumental exhibition” where the drums would cease to support the solo and instead try and become a competing soloist.

If you hear symptoms of TMN in your rhythm section, visit a groove doctor immediately. Most groove doctors will recommend that you suggest to your drummer that he is not, in fact, Carter Beauford. Follow-up visits might include:

  • hiding or otherwise controlling access to prog-rock and jam band music;
  • forced practice with a metronome and a rudiments book;
  • in extreme cases, enforced music therapy sessions featuring music by Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Chris Isaak, and Crowded House.

Don’t let your fellow musician’s TMN go untreated! The ears you save may be your own.


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