“Dead stroke” is a term used to describe the act of playing a note and holding the beater down onto the struck surface, not allowing any rebound to happen. This creates a very short, or dead sound. For this post, I’m going to focus on how we think about it for mallet percussion. The video below is a quick comparison of ordinary and dead strokes on a marimba.
My personal favorite way to see this notated is by. using a note that has an “x” on the stem, like so:
It might seem more simple to use a staccato marking (and for notation software purposes, it is), but I think most performers, myself included, would approach a staccato stroke differently than a dead stroke.
I find dead strokes to be especially effective on marimba, and a little on xylophone. Cutting off all resonance has a big impact on the sound. Vibraphone is just slightly trickier; I’ve had quite a few instances of running into dead strokes while the notes are already muted by the pedal. To my ears, a dead stroke makes no difference in this instance. What will work is if the pedal is down, and dead strokes can be employed while normally stroke notes will ring as normal. Basically any idiophone will respond in some way to a dead stroke; almglocken, gongs, crotales, etc. can create new and interesting sounds in this way.
Keep in mind that dead strokes are objectively harder than a normal stroke. By pressing into the key and cancelling the rebound, a dead stroke passage will require about twice as much work as it would if played normally. Be aware of this if you ever find yourself writing quick passages with this technique.
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