Monday Mar. 10th, 3pm, COB 322

Funk drumming: Structural and embodied aspects of musical expertise

Richard (Ric) Ashley
Northwestern University

Musical performance places extraordinary demands on the human body’s abilities, and drumming is an exceptionally challenging and interesting example of musical skill. Expert drummers deploy all their limbs–both hands and both feet–in swiftly-changing, complex patterns, synchronizing their actions and effects to a precision unheard of in most other human activities (within error windows of about 20 milliseconds). This talk presents some of the findings from a large, ongoing project on expert drumming, focusing on funk. Here I focus on two aspects of funk drumming: the sound structure of the drum parts and the interaction of the body with the drum set. With regard to structure, the drum patterns are modeled as traditional finite-state networks and as probabilistic grammars, presented as networks and matrices. The patterns display three striking features. First, they exhibit sparseness of connection using only a fraction of possible sound to sound transitions. Second, they are hierarchical and referential. Finally, both symmetrical and asymmetrical structures are found, with asymmetry being typically used to delineate larger structural boundaries. Finally, I discuss drumming as emerging from the possibilities and constraints of the human motor and cognitive systems and consider how these bodily factors influence and interact with both the geometry of the drumset and musical structure.

Richard Ashley is Associate Professor of Music, Cognitive Science, and Cognitive Neuroscience at Northwestern University. His research interests are in cognitive aspects of musical structure and expressive performance of music; his research has been published in Music Perception, Journal of Neuroscience, Computer Music Journal, Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences, and Journal of New Music Research, among others. He has served as President of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition and is a member of the editorial boards for the journal Music Perception and Psychology of Music. Dr. Ashley’s work has been supported by numerous agencies, including two Fulbright grants to The Netherlands (one as a student and one as a faculty member), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Dutch Science Foundation. He remains active as a performer on acoustic and electric bass.