How to Arrange Pop Songs for Drumline
When you learn how to arrange pop songs for drumline, there a few surprises to know before you start.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to write pop music songs for your marching percussion unit.
All music is made up of 3 components: rhythm, pitch, and dynamics—and arranging pop songs for drumline is no different.
But immediately, the idiom of marching percussion starts to influence creative direction for the arranger:
Dynamics almost don’t matter when arranging drumline pop songs.
Because most drumline performances happen at football games or at other loud, outdoor events like parades or parking lots.
So for our purposes, we’re going to eliminate dynamics. Not completely—it never goes away entirely.
But it’s much less important than the other two when arranging drumline pop tunes.
The 4 Basic Parts of Drumline Pop Songs
Ok, so with that established, let’s dig into the 4 basic parts of drumline pop songs.
Wait, didn’t you just say there were 3 and you were ditching one? How is that 4?
— You, right now, probably
Yes, I did. But it’s still really 4. Hear me out.
Let’s break the pop song into the 2 main pieces:
- Backing tracks
Cool, 2 basic parts so far.
And we said earlier that all music is built out of rhythm and pitch. That’s true of both pieces above, too.
So when we combine them, we get this:
- Backing tracks
- Melody (yes, even pop songs have melody)
And, to be thorough, we’ll add a #5— which would technically be part of backing tracks:
- Drum beat
Let’s dive into it. And if you’re looking for more feedback or answers to your arranging questions, check out our Drumline Music Writing Facebook group.
1. Bass Drums: Write the low end first.
Typically your bass drums can play some combination of rhythm and melody.
Use them to transcribe the low end of the backing tracks, emulating the sound of the bass guitar. They don’t always go first, you can tell by these percussion orchestration tips, but it makes sense here.
This part is often overlooked by new battery writers. Without it, your drumline’s rendition of a pop song will sound empty or hollow.
Bass drums playing melody
Depending on the size of your drumline, you’ll likely orchestrate the pop song for 3-6 bass drums, and split the notes over the drums according to the melody.
This is easiest with simple, repeatable bass grooves like Africa by Toto or Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes.
But even for more complicated tunes, don’t get too complex with your melody. It’ll never translate 100% anyway. Plus, tempo is super important for pop tunes. (Check out our review of the best metronomes for marching percussion to help!)
Keep it simple—both for your drummers and your audience.
If you only have a few bass drums in your drumline, arranging a melody can be a challenge.
Unless you’re playing a simple 1-4-5 rock tune like Louie Louie, your song’s bass melody probably has more than 3 pitches.
So take some creative liberties with your drumline/bass arrangement if you have to—group notes together.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be fun.
To get you started, you can grab all kinds of blank drumline sheet music here. And if you’re using Sibelius, you seriously need to check out our 5 Sibelius Hacks for Marching Percussion Arranging.
Bass drums playing the beat
Don’t exclude the basses. They’re too often an afterthought or “just the downbeats.”
You still want to use the bass drums to emphasize big beat rhythms. They can be so much more than that.
Go easy on the unisons, though. Unless you’re in a huge college (or Texas high school) stadium, too many bass unisons get real thumpy real quick.
Though if you listen to some drumlines, you’d never know it—like this cadence based on UMass Drumline.
2. Tenor Drums: Next comes the melody.
Next, the tenor drums can can combine the main melodic line with some extra harmony.
If possible, incorporate rhythmic impacts and high tones on your tenors’ spock or “bongo” drum (the highest pitched drum available).
Keep in mind that performance quality of your tenor drummers should always take the lead. Their parts should be written so they are clear and readable, but also fun to play and to hear.
Start with melody and add rhythm and impact— easy to do once you learn to play quads/tenors!
3. Snare Drums: Next comes the sauce.
Next, move to the snare drums. The snare drums have far fewer options for pitch or tonality, but they still can contribute.
Include variations in playing zone, implement, and surface or timbre to achieve variations in tone quality and rhythmic contribution from the snare drums.
That also makes the parts more challenging and fun for the performers.
Most often, that includes center of the drumhead and edge of the drum head, plus rim and side shell or cowbell or other effects.
If a typical snare drum setup includes a cowbell or jam block or cymbal, each of those add-ons has at least two zones and timbres available, plus two zones on the drum head and at least one or two zones on the side rim of the drum already.
Your snare drums have multiple timbres and sounds with which they can contribute.
Often, your snare drums will have a heavy impact on a backbeat. Too many marching percussion arrangements use the snare drum and rimshot over and over to achieve that backbeat.
The rimshot is an excellent tool percussion writers but do not use it too frequently.
4. Cymbals & Auxiliary: the extra mile.
Marching hand cymbals are excellent additions for all other sections, especially snare drummers, to add additional sounds and timbres.
But they can contribute more to the overall performance than just holding cymbals.
Your cymbal players can play crashes, ride cymbal effects, hi-hats, and other effects on their own time, of course—in addition to holding the cymbals up for the drummers.
Some ensembles include auxiliary performers—in many cases pit or front ensemble players temporarily joining the marching unit or battery during a football game, for example.
These auxiliary players can hold any and all other percussion instruments and add timbre and layer effects to the performance.
In many cases, it’s not necessary to write specific parts and rhythms for these performers to memorize.
Instead, they can essentially play along and add improvisational features to the performance.
Pop Song Structure
When you listen to your pop tune source material, listen first for the chorus or main repeated theme of the song.
This section is almost always going to be the most recognizable for fans and audience members.
And it should therefore be the main theme of your drumline pop songs and arrangements.
(This is why pop tunes are a great example of how NOT to use a metronome with your drumline).
Find the most recognizable portion of the chorus and use it as your foundation, primarily in the bass drummers and tenor drummers’ arrangements.
Once you have a main theme worked out in your bass drums and tenor drums, add in others like snares, cymbals, and auxiliary.
In most cases, it’s wise to limit your chorus to 4 or 8 measures (sometimes that means 4 measures played twice), that way your audience can hear their favorite part of the tune.
Maybe repeat it once but then move on to something interesting.
Next, arrange the first verse of the song. If the song has something unique and memorable in a second or later verse, you may want to use that as your primary material after the chorus.
However, if first, second, and third verses are all the same, choose the first.
The first verse is often the most recognizable verse of the song.
Repeat the same process starting with the bass drums and tenor drums arranging their melodic material.
Supplement that with rhythmic impacts in bass drum unisons, tenor high tones—like spock or bongo drums—and snare drum impacts on a backbeat (be careful to avoid overusing rim shots).
Keep your Drumline Pop Songs Short.
One of the most important factors to remember in arranging pop music for drum lines is that you will often only get 8, 12, 16, or maybe 24 measures to perform.
You have to keep it short and sweet. You’ll be well-served to remember the mantra:
Don’t bore us—get to the chorus!
In many cases, you may want to start by playing the chorus first follow that with verse number one or the most recognizable verse.
Play the chorus again and that might be all. This mantra was popularized by Foo Fighters’ lead singer, Dave Grohl in 2009:
If you get a chance to play more, add a bridge or other unique middle section of the pop tune.
Finish with one more chorus, and be done. There’s no need to drag it on.
Keep in mind that pop tunes are, by definition, popular. Your goal is audience participation.
Any chance you get to make the audience sing, clap, or dance along is a good one and you should take it.
The best way to do that is to play the parts that they know best in a clear, simple, recognizable arrangement.
Don’t get too complicated with your arrangements or you’ll lose your audience, and your performers may struggle to learn and memorize their drumline music fast.
Follow this formula to arrange marching percussion arrangements of pop charts:
- Bass drums
- bass drums melody
- bass drum impacts and rhythms
- tenor drums melody
- tenor drums rhythmic impacts
- Snare drums
- snare drum melody
- snare drum backbeat impacts
- cymbals and auxiliary
You should have an easy time converting nearly any popular song or hip-hop song into a marching percussion arrangement.