Music has the uncanny ability to evoke emotions in the listener. For example, songs composed using major scales often sound happy, while minor chords can evoke melancholy. As drummers we might seem limited in this regard when compared to other instrumentalists, since we generally don’t have the ability to play melodies or chords, but there’s a lot we can do. For instance, we can make things feel exciting or aggressive when we play on top of the pulse with a lot of energy. Or we can evoke feelings of lethargy or sadness by pulling back to the opposite side of the beat. With a strategic use of dynamics and tension-and-release, we can in fact contribute greatly to the emotional impact of the music.

A single musical note played in isolation expresses no tension. But when you add another note, you start to create a feeling or mood. However, a lot of the feelings we can convey on the drumset depend on the music we’re accompanying. In other words, a beat that creates a feeling of mystery in context can fall emotionally flat when played on its own.

In this column we’re going to explore some ways to utilize tension-and-release on the drums. These ideas can make fairly extreme statements. Use them sparingly, as the more you repeat an idea, the less effect it has on the listener.

Example 1 is a standard groove that we’ll use as a base to apply tension-and-release concepts in the following examples.


Changing the time signature is a great way to create tension. When you set up something like Example 1, the listener expects the pulse to arrive consistently every quarter note and for beat 1 to return after four pulses. Adding or subtracting a quarter note (5/4, 3/4) creates subtle tension, while 8th-note adjustments are a little more abstruse (7/8, 9/8). Smaller 16th-note changes introduce much greater amounts of rhythmic tension.

Examples 2 and 3 are in 15/16 and 17/16, respectively. Once you get the hang of them in isolation, try inserting them at the end of an eight- or sixteen-measure phrase to get a feel for how the unexpected offset pulse shakes up the established 4/4 feel.

Permutation is another tool perfectly suited for adjusting the pulse to increase rhythmic tension. Example 4 keeps the hi-hats in 8th notes while pushing the kick and snare pattern forward by a 16th note.

Implied metric modulation is another excellent tool that is used to either spread out or shrink the accent structure away from the primary pulse. Example 5 shrinks the accent structure into a 3/16 spacing, and Example 6 expands to a 5/16 spacing, each with matching hi-hat patterns.

For more extreme tension, you can utilize less common subdivisions to offset the pulse. Example 7 is based on quintuplets and has a hi-hat pattern that accents the quarter note. Example 8 uses septuplets with a lot of rests and a hi-hat pattern that ignores the pulse almost entirely.

You can create subtle rhythmic surprises that have a hint of tension by changing the subdivision without obscuring the pulse. Example 9 showcases a short triplet figure within the original groove from Example 1. Example 10 sets up a 16th-triplet shuffle with a straight 16th-note flam figure as a fill.

Examples 11 and 12 explore subdivision-related tension within a couple of short but odd-sounding fills.

You’ll find that as you repeat a pattern that contains a lot of rhythmic tension, the dissonance eventually becomes consonance, and the tension dissipates. Let’s try it out with a sparse quintuplet rhythm with a lot of tricky rests. Example 13 is very difficult to play while comfortably feeling the quarter-note pulse throughout.

Example 14 puts the rhythm on the kick drum. To dissipate rhythmic tension, start by practicing just the hand pattern. It’s a simple RLRRL sticking that accents the pulse.

Add the bass drum notes one at a time, and repeat each one many times until it feels natural. Before you know it, you’ll be playing the entire rhythm, and it won’t feel strange anymore.