Review: Modern Reading Text in 4/4 by Louis Bellson

Posted on January 28, 2024

Here’s a review I started a year ago and have finally wrapped up: Modern Reading Text in 4/4 by Louis Bellson, written in 1963. Louis Bellson (more commonly spelled Louie Bellson) is one of the most famous old–school drummers of the 20th century, and he has written several books (with some others that are now out of print), although this one is by far and away the most popular. 

I was inspired to write this after reading Todd Bishop’s review of Modern Reading Text. Todd was quite critical, but I remember enjoying this book somewhat when I went through it early in college. So it’s time to take another look at it.

Modern Reading Text in 4/4 is the rare kind of drum book that primarily works on reading. The only other notable text of this sort is Ted Reed’s Syncopation, and these two books are sometimes seen as companions to one another, although the true utility of Syncopation comes from orchestrating its patterns around the kit. 

As Todd explains in his review, Modern Reading Text in 4/4 is not suited for that purpose at all. Rather, the Bellson book is all about racking your brain with increasingly outrageous reading challenges. 

Now here’s my situation: I actually have a thing for snare drum solo books that are borderline obnoxious with their reading difficulty. Portraits in Rhythm is probably the most famous, but there are other books by guys like Jacques Delécluse, Mitchell Peters, and even Vic Firth.

Modern Reading Text in 4/4 is not a book of etudes, as everything is purely rhythmic. There are no tempo marks, dynamics, articulations, or even stickings. However, the exercises in the book nevertheless feel like solos in a way, since they’re anywhere from 24 to 40 bars long:

First, the good: the book has a clear and coherent structure and difficulty curve. Modern Reading Text starts with 8th notes and slowly introduces more and more subdivisions and their respective accouterments, ending with 32nd notes. (Despite what the table of contents says, there are no 32nd triplets in the book. At least, not with my copy, which I assume is not a misprinted one.)

There are a few times where this is unfortunately subverted, such as early on in the book — 16th notes first show up from pages 12 to 13, only to disappear for another 12 pages until their dedicated section. Triplets also show up for the first time on page 13 with this one random, oddball line:

Once more, they promptly disappear and are not used for another 30+ pages.

Now, how is the experience of actually playing the book? Well, again, I have some sort of masochistic soft spot for heinous reading material, and navigating these longer passages at a good clip is pretty exhilarating for me. But the value of Modern Reading Text is admittedly detached from anything you would do in real life. 

Reading at this level just isn’t a skill that’s going to benefit most drummers. As much as I value reading, it isn’t essential for non–classical musicians in the 21st century, least of all drum set players. There is no downside in knowing how to read music, but many people get by without knowing how to read at all, let alone how to read stuff that’s this difficult. 

Ultimately, the big problem with Modern Reading Text is one of the issues Todd pointed out: the difficulty of the book is often contrived because of the many times when it deliberately breaks the rules of music engraving.

Ties in particular are frequently abused, as in the following line:

In the first bar, there are two 16th notes tied together on beat 2; they would more properly be written by just combining them into an 8th note. On beat 3, the 16th and the 8th would just be a dotted 8th.

But the most egregious example has to be the final measure of that excerpt. There is absolutely, positively, no reason why three 16th notes should ever be tied together in 4/4. In fact, I struggle to think of any situation where that would be appropriate, save for music written in 1/16. 

Rests also become needlessly disorienting when the book just refuses to combine them into either 8th notes rests or dotted 8th rests:

Again, it’s fun in a brain teaser sort of way, but professionally published sheet music would never be written like this, and much like Todd, I struggle to figure out who the audience of the book is supposed to be aside from reading nerds. 

I do have to point out something funny: the book is actually relevant now more than ever thanks to the rise of amateur scores, which will most likely be the source of such ugly engraving. Whether or not you think you need to be prepared to read sheet music from MuseScore is a decision for you to make.  

For what it’s worth, the patterns in the book aren’t heavily syncopated, but they will still look intimidating thanks to the gnarly notation. Unfortunately, the book kind of gives itself away when it often presents two measures that sound the same on a drum but have been written differently (this doesn’t apply if you’re actually a wind player going through this thing).

So… I did enjoy this book, but its applications are limited, which is the name of the game when learning to read at this level. I remember seeing an old Tommy Igoe interview where he talked about how he scaled back reading work, including snare drum books (which presumably includes Portraits in Rhythm). He made the decision that it just wasn’t that important for students in this day and age. 

Before we go, Modern Reading Text has a sequel, Odd Time Reading Text (I’m not sure when it was published), which I haven’t gone through yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the wacky engraving tests my patience a bit more in odd meters — reading a flurry of 16th notes rests in 9/4 could be too much even for me. 

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