The Challenge of Writing Music Notation For Percussion - Part 1

This week's blog comes out of a recent experience I had presenting a performer-composer forum at Cal Arts, in Valencia, CA.  The thing that made this such a different experience for me was that only a couple of students attending were percussionists. The majority were composers and other instrumentalists. Right away, by not having an audience full of drummers, you enter a different dimension.

I'm not knocking on drummers, but an audience full of drummers tends to ask a lot of gear type questions: “What type of snare batter head do you use,” or, “Is that a heavy or medium ride cymbal?” A lot of questions like that. Non-drummers really don't care about your gear. They are more interested in what you do and how it possibly applies to what they do. 

This is true of composers, especially if they don't play percussion at all. They want to know how to notate all the weird and wonderful instruments we play, and all the strange sounds we make. So this week we will look at notating standard drums and drum set. Later, we will look at non-standard percussion, or sets of percussion.

Interacting with these young composers made me seriously think about what I do and how I do it. For me, much of this is second nature and I don't give it much thought. But in answering their questions about percussion notation, I realized that I should be more aware of what I do and even why I do it.

As both a performer and a composer, I come up against a lot of different types of percussion notations. For these examples in this blog, I will generally use the type of notation I use, because I feel it is clear and concise for both composer and performer. You may use some other notation. You may also find further examples of different notation out in the real world.

Standard Percussion

Single instruments, like the snare drum, can be notated on the standard 5-line staff, or on a single line. On the 5-line staff, the snare should always be on the 2nd space from the top.

snare drum on 5-line staff

snare drum on single line staff

While music notation generally suggests that notes above the middle of the staff have stems pointing down (and Finale, which I use, automatically does this, as in the first 2 examples)), most snare drum parts will be notated, as above, with the stems up for rhythmic clarity. I always notate them this way. Traditionally, this goes with having a bass drum part on the bottom space, with the stems pointing down, as shown below:

Single percussion instruments, such as tambourine, triangle, wood block, etc. can all be notated like the snare drum, on a 5-line or single line staff.

Drum Set Notation

Drum set is usually notated with cymbals on top, followed by toms and snare, with bass drum, and hi-hat with the foot pedal, at the bottom:

The order here is, from top note to bottom:

crash cymbal
hi-hat with stick
ride cymbal (on top line)
high tom
mid tom (on 2nd line)
snare drum (in its standard place)
low tom
bass drum (in its standard place)
hi-hat with foot pedal

Often the ride cymbal will share the top hi-hat line, with which instrument to be played designated. Other times, the ride cymbal will be an x note placed on the top staff line (as shown). The ride cymbal may also be designated with a diamond shaped note head, placed on the top staff line, or just above the staff. 

It is only recently that drum set notation has been standardized. Older sheet music may have instruments in different places. Also note that the example above is for a standard 5-drum/3-cymbal set. Added cymbals, drums, and percussion items (cow bell, wood block, etc.), make drum set notation a tricky endeavor. For those interested in the more technical aspects of notating for drum set, I would suggest Norman Weinberg's book, Guide To Standard Drumset Notation.

While we are at it, it can be either drumset, or drum set. Drum kit/drumkit (a more European term) is also acceptable. Toms are usually referred to (in a 5-piece set) as:

high tom
mid tom
low tom

The lowest one may also be referred to as, floor tom. More than 3 toms gets confusing when using terms such as, mid-high tom, mid-low tom, etc. It's preferential to just number them, from high to low:

tom 1
tom 2
tom 3
tom 4
tom 5

The main problem with drums and percussion, aside from mallets & timpani, is that the set ups can be any and everything. As both a composer, and performer, you have to be ready for everything, and realize there really is no standard notation for any multiple percussion.

Mallet instruments and timpani follow the standard notation rules that you will find for other treble and bass clef instruments. But as with percussion in general, sometimes special notation is required for special playing techniques, or combinations with other instruments. Please realize that sometimes percussion notation is a free for all!

~ MB

Part 2 will look at more specialized notation for multiple percussion.


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