Music Composition For Dummies
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Drummers have a language all their own, and drum notation has some peculiarities as well. Rather than write out a drum part, it is often easier to say something like, “Play a half-time groove,” or “Swing.” This article guides you through some of these conventions for composing music for drummers. But first look at the way in which drum notation works.

The most important parts of a drum “kit” are the bass drum, the snare drum, the hi-hat cymbals, the ride cymbal, and crash cymbal. Since drums have no standardized pitches to which they are tuned, they don’t need a treble clef or bass clef. You will see in the following figures what is commonly used as a clef sign for drums.

So, the bass drum is written on the bottom line of the staff, the snare on the middle line, the hi-hat on the top line, and ride or crash cymbals on the first ledger line above the staff. Regular note heads are used for the bass and snare (and the tom toms), and Xs are used as note heads for the cymbals. A circle is drawn around the Xs for the hi-hat when the hi-hat is played open instead of closed. The ride cymbal is an X with no circle, and the crash has a circle around its X.

Look at the following figure. This is a basic rock groove with the snare hitting on beats 2 and 4. Notice the open hi-hat at the end of the fourth measure. If you ask a drummer to play a straight rock and roll beat, this is likely what you will get. The hi-hat might alternately play just quarter notes or it could play sixteenths for variety, but it’s basically rock and roll.

Rock and Roll groove. Rock and Roll groove

The following figure shows you what a “half-time” groove looks like. The snare is now on beat 3. Hi-hat can also play different subdivisions.

“Half time” groove. “Half time” groove.

The next figure is what a drummer might see written, but if you look at the image following, it illustrates what a “swinging” it would “sound” like. You wouldn’t write a swing groove this way because if a drummer knows how to swing, he won’t need it. Some musicians couldn’t swing if you hung them from a rope, so the figure might not help. It’s just there for you to get a feel of what “swing” really means and to keep you looking at drum notation examples.

Swing as written. Swing as written.

Swing as played. Swing as played

The following figure shows some tom-toms, ride, and crash cymbals. The tom-toms are written on the spaces with normal note heads. Their position on the staff indicates which tom-tom you want played, from high to low. Modern drum sets typically have at least two or three tom-toms.

Tom-toms, ride, crash. Tom-toms, ride, crash

This figure is a drum groove complete with all the stuff you have learned so far. Can you read it. Can you hear it in your head?

Full kit groove. Full kit groove

Though you can totally write out parts for a drummer, it’s often better just to let them know what feel you want the groove to have. Sometimes you can just write out any special accents you want them to play within that groove. Look at this figure. Here it doesn’t really matter what clef sign you use. The drummer will give you the groove you agreed on and will play the accents when they come along in the chart.

Drum accents only. Drum accents only

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