The Rhythm Method: Crowd-sourcing Drum Science

It’s always fun making Sixty Symbols/Numberphile videos with Brady Haran but the most recent filming brought together quite a number of my core enthusiasms — Rush, physics, drums, and noise (in all senses of the term) — and so was even more enjoyable than usual.

Brady uploaded the videos this morning (here and here). The first discusses a fascinating recent paper by Esa Räsänen and colleagues which focuses on the fluctuations in timing in the virtuoso drum pattern played by Jeff Porcaro in Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ “. I’m not a huge fan of the song but Porcaro’s groove is certainly infectious. He’s also responsible for the fantastic drumming in this classic, among so many other others. (Please excuse the excruciatingly high cheese factor in that Toto video. It was the Eighties.)

Fortuitously, I read the paper by Esa, Holger and their colleagues at around about the time an e-mail arrived asking for suggestions for undergraduate projects. As Esa et al. state in the conclusions of their paper, there is particularly exciting scope to extend their analysis to other songs, drummers, and styles. So I proposed an analysis of fluctuations in drum beats as an undergraduate project and was delighted when two 3rd year Physics students at Nottingham, Easel Kandola-McNicholas and Adeel Bokhari, selected the project.

What we want to do is analyse the fluctuations in timing/rhythm for not just one drummer — as Esa, Holger et al. did — but for as many drummers as possible. Enter Sixty Symbols. While we could have stuck with an analysis of the Porcaro pattern — and, indeed, if you’re a drummer, please feel free to send us your version of “I Keep Forgettin’ ” to the address below — there’s another single-handed 16th note pattern which is very famous among drummers: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. Neil Peart is widely recognised as among the very best rock drummers in the world, and there are very interesting parallels with the Porcaro track in terms of the way the 16th note pattern is played, so, in many ways, “Tom Sawyer” is a natural choice. (My love of Rush is, of course, entirely coincidental…)

I put together this short video (using the wonder that is Aerodrums — see below) to show some examples of the 16th note patterns in “Tom Sawyer” and to explain what we need for the analysis.

Our aim is to publish the analysis and include the names of all those who contributed their version of “Tom Sawyer” (and/or “I Keep Forgettin’ “) in the paper. If you’re a drummer and you’d like to contribute please e-mail your WAV, MP3, or MIDI file (or any other appropriate file type) to There’s no deadline — we’ll accept drum tracks for as long as it takes to get good statistics for the analysis. The more, the merrier.

By the way, Aerodrums are available here. I enthusiastically recommend them! I’m not a drummer and so Aerodrums are ideal for learning to play and for putting down rhythms when song-writing or demoing tracks. But they’re much more than this — in very many ways, Aerodrums are just as good as a real kit, as this impressive example of virtuoso aerodrumming shows…

[A huge thank you to the University of Nottingham BandSoc and, in particular, Jedd Bellamy-Carter for providing the practice room for the video and for all their help with equipment].