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Topic: The function of drum fills (Read 8472 times) previous topic - next topic
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The function of drum fills

I hope this is an appropriate place for this topic. I'm new here, but I'd like to talk a little bit about the function of drum fills.

This is a topic to which I am particularly sensitive.

I have a mental illness which puts me on the autism spectrum. I have schizoaffective disorder, which is an illness that combines the symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. My illness alters the way in which I perceive every aspect of reality, that is why it puts me on the autism spectrum. This is particularly relevant to my perception of music and to the topic at hand because my illness alters my perception of time.

I do not have a normal understanding or perception of time. I am not able to be aware of systems of time management such as clocks or calendars in the way that a normal person might. My understanding of the passage of time is not based on the numbers displayed on a clock, but it is not so difficult to imagine what my perception of time is like.

My perception of time is based on the physical events that take place within my sphere of perception. I do not mark morning with a number AM, I mark morning with the change in my state of consciousness from sleep to wake. I do not know the number for the time at which it is appropriate to eat lunch, I just know that my girlfriend has returned from work.

This sort of perception of time independent of time keeping mechanisms and based entirely on the qualia you experience as changes take place in the physical world which surrounds you is the sort of time perception that most people experience when they listen to a piece of music.

A musician controls their audience's perception of the passage of time. This is essential even to arhythmic music. If you are playing music of any kind, you are changing your audience's perception of the passage of time.

Controlling that perception is one of the specific functions of rhythm, tempo and the interactions thereof. With each passing subdivision, you are indicating to your audience that a minute segment of time has passed.

This makes the rhythmic instruments or elements of a piece of music particularly powerful. Whatever that rhythmic element may be, a guitar, a bass, or a drum kit, the instrument or instruments that play the role of keeping the time on which all other rhythms are based has a great deal of control over the audience's perception of the passage of time, something which most people consider to be immutable and intrinsic to their reality.

If you have a drum kit playing a rhythm in your song, your audience will take cues from that kit as to the passage of time. This is unavoidable. People have been taught to do so from childhood and they are not about to change that for you. If you have a drum kit playing a rhythm it will define the time to some extent even if it is wildly out of time with everything else. That said I'm not invalidating the creative choice of using the drum kit in alternate ways. There's nothing wrong with arhythmic drumming or any other ideas you might come up with. But you must understand that if you have drums and they play a rhythm, that rhythm will have an effect on your audience's perception of time which you can use to your advantage.

Now I can talk about the function of fills. If subdivisions mark the passage of time on the most micro level, then the most macro level of a unit of time which can be marked by a drum kit is done so with a fill. We are not aware of the passage of time because of continuous similarity, we become aware of the passage of time when something significantly different happens in the world around us. When the transient of the snare hits, we pass time. When a passage of a song ends we pass time.

If you do not have fills, but instead transition directly from one beat to another, you have not significantly marked the passage of time from one unit of music to the next. Depending on the beats that you choose, your audience may not even notice that you have changed what the drums are doing. Your audience may not take the cue from the drums that you have chosen to pass time from one segment of your song to another.

This is not to say that you must have fills in your music. It is a perfectly valid choice not to have any fills, or not to place a fill in a particular place. But you must understand that if you do not have a fill, or any fills, you are not indicating to your audience that time is passing on the instrument that is most crucial to their understanding of the passage of time and this will have an effect on the way that people perceive your music.

If you are trying to stretch each moment of your song into interminable lengths, it is valid not to include any fills in your drumming. If you want the effect of a moment in time dragging on and on you can leave out the fill in that part.

But if you want your music to move forward in time, you must have fills.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #1
But if you want your music to move forward in time, you must have fills.

I see this claim multiple times here, but I don't believe it's actually demonstrated anywhere.
Creature of habit.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #2
You're right, I guess I overstated. You can move time forward other ways, but you're really not doing yourself any favors by totally excluding your main vehicle for the passage of time. I have yet to hear an example where it is not deleterious, but I would love to hear one, that would be an interesting track for sure.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #3
I was once subjected to the Greatest Hits of Bryan Adams, where every song seemed to have exactly the same 4/4 "thud-crash" drum beat. Time went seriously bloody slowly before the last track mercifully faded out.  ;)

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #4
I don't think anybody actually perceives time as some sort of clock (That's why we use clocks to sort of objectify the time), unless i misunderstood the point.
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Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #5
I am also put in mind of a chapter called "It's as Simple as One, Two, Three" by Richard Feynman in his book, The Pleasure of finding things out, which addressed the passage of time and our perception thereof.
You can snag a PDF of it here:

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #6
I'm not saying that people's perception of time is based on clocks, just that normal people are able to perceive time in such a way that allows them to be aware of the relationship between it's passage and time management systems like clocks and calendars.

I have difficulties placing events in time, for example. I have a very solid grasp on when today is, no problem, and I'm pretty clear on when tomorrow is most of the time, but sequences of events in the past are very difficult for me to order. They become part of a tangled mess after a couple days. Things like what month something took place in are impossible. Days of the week do not exist to me because I have given up my attempts at trying to understand my relationship to them. So if you tell me to meet you in a week, I probably won't be able to, because I don't know how long to wait because what I think is a week could end up being a few days or a month depending on how much time expands or contracts during that period because I can't coordinate my actions to a time keeping system. You would have to tell my girlfriend to help me meet you in a week so that she could tell me during today that it's the day to meet you.

It's honestly not that different from how normal people perceive time. It's mostly just that I forget quicker and get confused easier, plus I had a lot of intense time dilation experiences when I was psychotic and I experienced many many lifetimes worth of delusional events so when I'm not hyper-vigilant and experiencing skydiver time dilation, time passes really quick like it would for someone really really old.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #7
The other issue I have with the theory that drum fills are there to serve the movement of time (in a song) is that it appears to me the fact fills can be, and often are, played by any instrument is ignored.  Rather an incorrect chain is built fills->drums->rhythm->time.

When we accept that all instruments, even those whose role in the bar is melody, can play fills I think the argument starts to break down.  Not to mention the fact that there are dozens of other, more blatant, markers of passing time in songs, such as verse:chorus structures.
Creature of habit.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #8
Every note that is played by any instrument moves a unit of time, every chord change moves a larger unit of time.

You're not thinking about it from the perspective of a musician, of a person who is making music. Take your thought to the extreme and just play straight 4/4 click through your entire song and try to make that move with other instruments.

Fills are a tool. What are you going to discard perfectly good tools because you just happen to have other tools.

You can smear shit on a canvas with your hands if you want, but I'm gonna use paint and a brush.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #10
But if you want your music to move forward in time, you must have fills.

Just making clear: are you arguing that only *drum* fills can break monotony in a section of music?

Or that fills (of any kind, with any instrument) are required to signify change and foward movement?

There's some merit to the second claim, since for example there's Nine Inch Nails - Beside You In Time, which is explicitly structured to go on & on & on & on, and as far as I can remember employs no fills at all:

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #11
Neither. I'm just saying that if you don't include drum fills, you will have to do something much more significantly different with you other instruments in order to make time pass because the drums have such a big effect on the passage of time. Not only do you have to pass time, but you also have to counteract the slowing of time caused by choosing not to include a fill. Although it is sometimes best to exclude the fill and rely on another instrument or instruments to pass time, it is not a good idea to reject fills as a tool in general.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #12
Yeah, that's basically what I said in point 2; that fills are somehow required to signal progress.

drums have such a big effect on the passage of time
Anything can do that. No need to focus on drums so absolutely.

it is not a good idea to reject fills as a tool in general.
It can be wonderful idea to not use fills, but it depends on what mood an artist wants to convey with the music. You don't have to like such songs, of course, but that's subjective. :)


For the record, I absolutely *love* the NiN song I linked above.

Re: The function of drum fills

Reply #13
If you have a good reason for choosing not to use fills then it is definitely a wonderful idea. Anytime you have a musical idea, you should do whatever it takes to serve that idea. But if you're choosing not to use fills because of some prejudice against fills and because you reject them wholesale, because you don't understand how fills function, or because you don't know how to write or play a decent fill, then it isn't a valid conscious creative choice to serve the musical idea, but a musical failing.

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