I really enjoy helping my friends edit their percussion parts, and one of the most common things to look over is drum set notation. This can get pretty deep but we’ll start simple. Be sure to check out part 2 for more info!
Before we go any further: whenever possible, know your drummer.
The skillset of percussionists varies to really no need. Something I’ve noticed is a misconception that if a percussionist is, say, extremely good at marimba, then that must mean they are equally as comfortable on the drum set. While it could be true, those two examples are wildly different skill sets. If you have the privilege of writing for somebody that you can work with during the composition process, be sure to workshop the material to make sure it’s comfortable for them.
On to notation:
Below is a graphic demonstrating the most standardized way of notating a 4-piece drum kit. Note the x note heads for cymbals, which is standard for most metallic sounds in unpitched percussion, and standard note heads for drums. The drums are evenly spaced on the staff, and the cymbals, the instruments with the highest frequency, are above all of them, with the exception of when the hi-hat is played with the foot. Obviously, a drum set can be amended to have many more drums, cymbals, accessories, etc., but again, we’re staying simple for now.
Certain assumptions are made when looking at a drum set part, such as:
- Snares are turned on
- Cymbals are allowed to ring indefinitely
- Cymbals are played in the standard playing area
- Drums are to be struck on the head
- Hi-hat hits (with stick) are to be closed
To avoid these assumptions, extra or different notation should be employed.
Exception 1: Snares on/off
There is no need to change the appearance of the notes to demonstrate snares being on/off, but text instructions should be given with plenty of time to make the change before the player enters. Keep in mind that quick changes to a snare strainer can be very frantic and may result in a missed entrance.
Exception 2: Open vs. closed hi-hat
Without additional instruction, the hi-hat is assumed to be pressed closed. To play an open note, a small “o” should be placed above the notehead, as pictured below. The hi-hat will be assumed left open until a “+” sign is placed in the same spot.
Exception 3: Playing the cymbal bell
To specify that a cymbal should be hit on the bell, replace the “x” notehead with a diamond. See the below example, which shows the difference for a standardly notated ride cymbal.
Using a diamond notehead does not imply infinite bell hits in the way that an open hi-hat is open until stated otherwise; each bell hit should be notated with a diamond.
Exception 4: Drums are hit on the head
To instruct that the drum should be hit somewhere other than the head, use a different notehead. It is very typical to play drums on the rim, which is usually notated with an “x” notehead, pictured below:
It may seem odd to give a kick rim as an option, but it’s always an option to hit the rim of the kick with a stick, if that floats your boat.
There is also the possibility of striking a drum on its shell, but consider that a drummer may not want to strike their instruments in that fashion, and it may be difficult to do depending on the setup. For shell notations, I would suggest a diamond notehead. Don’t forget to specify all of these, regardless of how common, in your performance notes.
Exception 5: Cymbals ring indefinitely
Listen to a rock song, a jazz standard, anything with a drum set. The cymbals are essentially minding their own business, right? You hit one, it rings, you hit it again, it rings some more, the story continues. Of course, that might not always be ideal. If you feel the need to differentiate, use the notation below:
There will be instances when a written rest is to be treated as a dampen, but what to do with the ringing can usually be decided after listening to what the rest of the ensemble is doing. Make a note if it seems counterintuitive (i.e. the whole orchestra cuts off, but cymbals continue to ring).
In most cases, specifying duration in drum set writing should be solely about clarity. It can make a difference to specify a staccato hit, resulting in a head being immediately dampened after struck, but that’s about it. Drum sets don’t resonate in the way that, say, timpani do, so writing particularly long durations mostly doesn’t make sense.
So here’s a particularly bad example that I made up:
Not only do the written durations make no sense, but the rhythm also becomes very convoluted. The composite rhythm suddenly looks complicated, and we lose sight of the middle of the bar, throwing a major wrench in understanding where the notes in the snare part fall.
Here’s the same example, written properly.
Now with much simpler durations, we have a completely sight-readable bar. Will these hits actually last a full quarter note? Almost definitely not, unless you have insanely resonant drums and are playing at a brisk tempo. Again, this concept is all about clarity. Some composers elect to write more literal durations, resulting in every note being written as an eighth or shorter, but I’m of the opinion that this makes reading slightly harder without benefit.
As strange as it may sound, some composers, for better or worse, would rather the drummer make their own choices in the music, notated as such:
For some guidance, add some text above the staff, such as “rock groove”, or anything that you feel illustrates the desired style.
Stems and beaming:
I feel like this might be the area where people disagree with me the most, so just a reminder that everything on this blog is a matter of opinion.
In terms of beaming, as a general rule I believe all notes should share beams/stems, as so:
It’s common to put the syncopated drum part stems-down, with the constant eighth notes stems-up, like so:
I don’t think this looks terrible, but I like that the first example shows a clear composite rhythm.
There are, of course, exceptions. For example, if a polyrhythm is happening between two voices, varied stems are far more clear:
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