Accented notes versus unaccented notes

By Ryan Sapp – Drum Set Instructor at The Lesson Studio.

Ryan Sapp

Ryan Sapp, Percussion Instructor at the Lesson Studio

In drumming, there should be a major difference in volume between accented notes and unaccented notes. Unaccented notes can be thought of as “the normal notes at the normal volume” or “just cruising along”. Accented notes are much louder and should really stick out and be discernable by even the casual music listener. Accented notes are frequently used as the backbeat (2 and 4) in rock music. They are also used to highlight accents in songs and other instruments. Accented notes are frequently used in fills and can also create a counter rhythm within a flow of notes.

Creating solid accents within the flow of the music and in a stream of notes is a worthwhile pursuit. It requires consistent practice over the course of time. The rewards of this practice are numerous and include superior hand and muscular control, increased dynamic awareness, and a musical sophistication that is noticeable amongst musicians and listeners alike. A qualified instructor will help you use the correct technique and guide you in your pursuit of musical excellence.

To begin with unaccented notes, you must place the sticks just above the drum in the “neutral position”. The tips of the drumsticks must be very near each other and be approximately 1/2 inch over the drumhead. Both sticks must be at the same height. This position allows you to drop each tip onto the drumhead at a lower volume. After either hand strikes the drum, remember to return it to the “neutral position” of 1/2 inch above the drumhead. Using a metronome and playing a steady stream of either 8th or 16th notes is highly recommended to help achieve evenness.

To play an accented note, you must also begin at the “neutral position”. This position allows for the easy use of playing either an unaccented note (which you just drop the stick to the head) or an accented note (which you simply lift the stick approximately 6 – 12 inches above the drumhead). Lift the stick with the wrist using a good pivot. When playing an accented note, do not lift the stick past a 90-degree angle or the straight up and down position. Using your wrist with a good pivot, bring the stick back toward the drumhead. After bringing the stick down and striking the drumhead, return your hand and the tip of the stick to the neutral position.

When bringing the stick down from the high, accented position, you only have to use enough power to bring the stick in motion while letting gravity take care of the rest. Think of it like dribbling a basketball: Once the ball is in motion, you just have to lightly flick it with your wrist to keep it going. The ball is doing the work for you. Thus, you do not have to be heavy handed while doing accents.

Stick height controls volume. Thus, the softer unaccented notes are only a 1/2 inch above the drumhead while the louder accented notes are approximately 6 – 12 inches above the drumhead. This significant difference in height between unaccented notes and accented notes should be at noticeably different volumes. In written dynamics, the unaccented notes should sound piano (soft) and the accented notes should sound fortissimo (very loud).

There are several drum method books that feature exercises and usable patterns to practice. There are also hundreds of songs that feature excellent use of accented versus unaccented notes. Notable famous beats within songs include The Red Hot Chili Peppers “Under The Bridge”, Tower Of Power’s “Soul Vaccination”, Toto’s “Rosanna”, and “Funky Drummer” by James Brown.

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