Percussion Notation Basics
Writing for percussion can be daunting for a non-percussionist. The percussion section has always been a mystical, magical place for the rest of us and we were never really allowed to be back there, even if we were brave enough to try. They have a thousand different instruments, each with specific techniques and notational conventions.
Due to the nature of my work, I come across a lot of scores written by many different composers and orchestraters. Some of my clients are very famous and you have definitely not only heard of them, but you have played their music before, and some of them are students and/or emerging artists. But across the board, the most consistent issues I see, regardless of level of experience or notoriety, is a misunderstanding of the basics of percussion notation. So, today's entry is going to focus on the basics of percussion notation. If you think that this is too basic and that everyone knows all of this, I assure you that you are mistaken. I have seen some crazy stuff, man. Trust me. You don't want to know. You can't unsee some of the stuff I've seen.
NOTE: If you are, or ever have been, a client of mine, I promise that I'm not calling you out, or shaming you. I also promise that any corrections that I might have made in your scores and parts have also been made in many, many other people's scores, too. This is just a general overview of the most common elements that are very often misunderstood.
This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive guide to percussion notation...these are simply the issues that I, in my own personal experience, have found to be the most common errors in the percussion parts I have edited.
Staves and Clefs
Non-pitched percussion instruments are notated on either 1-, 3-, or 5-lined staves, depending on the instrument and the context. A 5-lined staff can be used for anything, but sometimes a 1- or 3-lined staff just works better. Don't worry....I'll give you examples in a little bit.
Percussion music used to be notated in bass clef, even though it is unpitched. This was a constant source of frustration for percussionists who were constantly struggling to tune their snare drums to an E and their bass drums to a low A. Okay...maybe that last part isn't exactly true, but why would you use a specifically pitched clef for non-pitched instruments?
The music publishing industry came to the rescue and created a new clef to be used
exclusively for non-pitched percussion instruments.
(If you are REALLY interested in the percussion clef phenomenon, check out p.364 of Gardner Read's "Music Notation." He has an impressive list of different percussion clefs, most of which are now obsolete, but still very interesting).
Snare Drum and Bass Drum
When using the 5-lined staff, the snare drum goes on the 3rd space with stems up and the bass drum is notated on the first space with stems down. Both players will read off of this combined percussion part. If you put the notes on any other line or space, it will cause initial confusion. Yes, the players will be able to figure out what you mean, but they shouldn't have to.
This is where they go.
It is also common (and perfectly acceptable) to create separate staves for each different instrument. In this situation, I would use a 1-line staff and place the notes on the line with the stems up.
Flams are notated as grace notes. A single flam would use an 8th note grace note, and a ruff would use two 16th note grace notes. You do not slur the grace notes into the main note,
as that would indicate playing both notes with the same hand. If the player is to alternate hands (and they would with a flam) then you do not write a slur.
(Admittedly, this is a mistake that I have made from time to time)
EDIT: There is much debate about that last topic...whether or not flams take a slur. Despite what I said in the above paragraph, I actually always use a slur, but when I checked the Gould before posting this, she clearly states otherwise. But the Percussive Arts Society disagrees with her. And to be honest, I think it looks weird without a slur. This is one time when I will stray from the Gould and will officially change my stance on the topic.
.In the case of a ruff, the slur between the grace notes tells the performer whether to play them with alternate hands (open strokes) or with a rebounding double stroke (closed stroke).
Multiple Parts on the Same Line
It is common to conserve space by putting multiple parts on the same staff, and also on the same individual part. If you do this, make sure that your note placement (which line or space the notes are on) remains consistent for each instrument. and that each instrument is clearly marked. When I do this, I like to use a single line staff with the instruments notated as such...
Another common issue has to do with the notation of rolls on both timpani and non-pitched percussion instruments. In olden days, a trill was used to indicate a roll. This was done simply due to a lack of having a better symbol (okay...I don't know why they actually did it, but they did it regardless). It was never intended to be an actual trill on the timpani, or anything else. It was just the symbol they used, similar to when they used a bass clef for non-pitched percussion.
This is not how it is done anymore. It's not "Potato vs. Potatoe," it's not retro, it's not distinctive, it's just an outdated convention...much like calling women "dames."
(NOTE: Gardner Read disagrees with me on this point, but I'm not going to bring that up).
Instead, we use a triple slash tremolo mark to indicate a non-measured roll on notes
valued at quarter note or larger. 8th notes take a 2-slash tremolo mark.
(The argument against this practice is that it is theoretically possible to confuse it with an abbreviation for a metered repetition/shorthand for writing shorter note durations, where a quarter note with 3 slashes would be performed as eight 32nd notes. But, to be honest, that convention isn't used very often anymore, certainly not enough to cause any actual confusion between the two. Using a trill marking would cause MUCH more confusion than using the 3-slash tremolo marking, which is absolutely common practice).
This is how EVERY SINGLE band percussion student learns to read percussion music in today's instrumental music classes.
Notice the snare drum rolls are tied into the next note? That's because the quarter note roll is actually a 9-stroke roll, and the 8th note on beat 2 is actually the 9th stroke.
The same is true in the next measure. The 8th note with 2 slashes is a 5-stroke roll, with the 5th stroke being on the 2nd 8th note.
Another common issue surrounds the mysterious l.v. symbol, used to indicate that the performer is the let the instrument ring. It is most commonly seen in Cymbal parts (Suspended or Crash), Mark Tree, Bell Tree, Chimes (Tubular Bells), Gong, Triangle, etc.
The symbol for l.v. is a small curved line, similar to the look of a tie, but it is not a tie.
Now...what if you have multiple notes in a measure that each need to ring?
If the stem is up, then the tie and the l.v. symbol go below the line.
If the stem is down, then the tie and the l.v. symbol go above the line.
I sincerely hope that this has been helpful to those who need it. These are the most common issues I've encountered in my own experience editing and engraving scores for composers, but they are all very easy fixes. Are there other ways of notating percussion? Yes, of course. Will percussionist be able to figure out what you mean anyway, regardless of whether or not you notate it correctly? Yes, probably, but they shouldn't have to. Well prepared percussion parts are a definite sign that the composer or orchestrater knows what they are doing, and it will put you in a good place when they go to sightread the piece. If your parts are notated poorly, the players will immediately be suspicious of your credibility.
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Gould, Elaine. "Behind Bars."
Kennan, Kent and Grantham, Donald. "The Technique of Orchestration."
Read, Gardner. "Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice"
Percussive Arts Society www.pas.org/resources/rudiments
12/24/2017 02:35:23 pm
It would be good to point out that l.v. comes from the French, "laisser vibrer", or even from the Italian, "lasciare vibrare".
8/22/2019 03:26:31 pm
Spero che posso imparare un poco di strumenti a percussione un po` meglio del mio italiano- grazie mille!
1/3/2022 10:13:56 am
I notice that in your cymbal example you use the traditional oval head for the note, but I've often seen a X used for the head in percussion notation for cymbals. Could you please comment in this?
3/18/2022 11:19:00 am
From my experience as a percussionist, common concert band/orchestral cymbals (hand crashes and suspended) are notated with normal oval noteheads. The X notation is usually used for other cymbals, especially if one player has to play some cymbals and some drums (i.e. drumset or multi percussion setups). That said, I've seen plenty of scores with 3 or 4 percussion parts on one staff that use the X noteheads to make it clear that that part is the crash cymbals, and I like that approach. Either way isnt going to confuse anyone if you're consistent with it though, the main use of noteheads is to help someone reading differentiate between different instruments or techniques and that's not super necessary if one person is only playing one instrument at a time as is usually the case in orchestral works.
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