Musicians, what does it mean to "visualize" a song? Details within.

I’ve been reading the Bob Spitz bio on the Beatles. At the point where it discusses the recording of “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which is sung by Ringo, it’s said that the arrangement had to be kept pretty simple as Ringo would have to sing it from behind the drum kit–and also because it’s implied he had difficulties in “concentration”. Here, Paul is then quoted as saying that if Ringo couldn’t “visualize” the song, “you were in trouble”. But that doesn’t make any sense to me. If ‘visualizing’ the song is just remembering the general outline and structure of the song, and in Ringo’s case only needing to worry about the timing, rather than the execution, of the chord changes, how could he possibly not be able to “visualize” pretty much any song the Beatles ever did?

The following is a WAG until a real drummer comes in and sorts me out.

The drummer is in charge of the structure of the song in a way that no other musician is. At the end of each phrase, the singer, bass player and guitarists have come to a natural resting place. The drummer has to crank it back up with a rhythmic fill.

Boom thwack b’boom-boom thwack
Boom thwack b’boom-boom thwack
Boom thwack b’boom-boom thwack
bid-a-boom thwack-ack-ack boom thwack-ack for one phrase.

So, in the standard early Beatles songs, that sort of thing would work fine. Now, think of one of the more complex middle period songs, like “We can work it out”. One kind of beat and fills for the first section, a different kind of beat and fills for the second section and then the waltz feel for ‘…fussing and fighting, my friend.’ What happens to the song if Ringo misses that turn? Train wreck.

Now, to add to the difficulties, Ringo, who is not a strong singer, is supposed to sing lead and play drums at the same time. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a good singer, but he has a lower voice (baritone) rather than Paul and John’s higher (tenor) voices, and he doesn’t have anywhere near the power and stamina of Paul, John or even George (who was singing harmony on much of the Beatles output.) The other big question is - unlike the guitarists or the bass player, he has to fill with the drums when his voice hits the end of a phrase.

‘Visualize’ isn’t the word I would have chosen for this, but musicians often refer to the ‘road map’ of a piece, eg. Intro-verse-verse-second ending-chorus-DS-verse-chorus-coda-outro. The drummer isn’t just keeping time, he’s driving the bus, and if he doesn’t have the above road map nailed, we’re gonna lurch around the block like some pack of teenagers driving a stick shift for the first time.

Think of it this way - if you’re following a set of memorized directions while driving, you’re doing something similar. “West two blocks, left turn one block, right turn one block, right turn three blocks, turn left - hold until the railway bridge, turn right, second driveway and into the parking lot, look for unit #16.” Hitting or missing every one of those turns can make all the difference between a fun little drive and a screaming match.

I didn’t think the drummer has to do anything in particular at the end of a phrase, as much as provide the basic beat and appropriate accents or textures. For instance, in the Doors’ recordings I’ve noticed that Densmore liked to use a cymbal crash on the one beat, especially at a chord change, but I’d think that any decent drummer would be able to handle this sort of thing in his sleep.

OTOH I do fully get the concept about the increased difficulty of singing and drumming (or playing any instrument) at the same time. As a guitarist I find it difficult to do any kind of intricate melody while singing*, while in the absence of having to sing I wouldn’t have any trouble with the guitar part.

*I don’t really sing, but may mouth/verbalize lyrics when trying to learn a song.

I sing and play guitar simultaneously, sometimes to hilarious effect. I kind of zone out and let my lizard brain make sure I’m playing and singing together well. If I’m trying to do it consciously, it’s harder, for some reason. I have to kind of let myself go a bit, and I often close my eyes so visual input (drummer making drummer faces, etc.) isn’t distracting. So in this case, I think visualize means something along the lines of being able to sort of let go and let it glide.

Another analogy may be the follow-through on a golf swing. I think you’re supposed to “hit through the ball” so to speak (I’m not a golfer, so I don’t know the details).

Any yes, listen to the Beatles’ version, then the Stones version, and there’s definitely more swing to MJs vocals as he’s able to kind of wander around the beat, a luxury Ringo didn’t have.

Just wanted to point out again that Frank Zappa, a remarkably intelligent man and prolly the greatest guitar player who ever lived (IMO and IACO*), wrote that he could not play guitar and sing at the same time, at all. It’s harder to do than it looks.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon with playing instruments generally, and I suppose it may happen in a way to singers also, though I tend to doubt it because the technical demands and other challenges facing the singer are rather different. In addition to more blues and pop oriented stuff, I also play classical guitar, and before I took up the guitar I played piano and was heavily into ragtime. I’ve always noticed that if I think too much about what I’m playing I’m apt to stumble. Strangely, this often happens if I try to slow down the tempo and really get every note exactly right. If I play the music at tempo I’m likely to miss some ties, or lose some of the dynamic integrity, but even with that I make far fewer mistakes playing at tempo than if I slow it down, say, 50% and say, I’m going to play every note right, dammit!

My old piano teacher would say that this means you’re relying on your muscle memory, and that you don’t really know the song.