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Music (Part 7)

Article from Sound International, January 1979

Dave Stewart puts the case for phlakaton phlakaton, as opposed to boum kaf boum kaf (yes, it's drum music time!), in the latest of his carefully worded, skillfully constructed, er...

My self-imposed career as a musical aesthete has led me several times to seek employment in low-life haunts. Though one hastens to draw a veil over what goes on backstage at Let My People Come (a West End musical sex comedy) I can reveal that it was there that I first met Bob Emmines, who was playing drums in the show. Nightly, the band (I name no names) would assemble to grind out ghastly show tunes while luridly-lit buttocks weaved in front of their faces... however, Bob seems to have survived this enriching experience sufficiently to explain to me the rudiments of drum notation, and these I now pass on to you.

Although kit drums (as opposed to tympani and the like) don't produce actual tuned notes, drum parts are written on a musical stave, the bass stave:

Each part of the kit has its own part of the stave; snare drum parts are written on the 2nd space down (ie on the space which would normally be E):

Bass drum is written on the bottom space:

Tom toms are written in the spaces either side of the snare; small toms take the higher space and floor toms the lower:

(As this system of notation was formalised at a time when two tom toms was the norm, a special system has to be used to notate parts for kits comprising lots of tom toms. I'll come to this in a while.)

Thus, you can see that the drums are arranged across the stave with the 'highs' (small tom tom and snare drum) at the top and the 'lows' (floor tom tom and bass drum) at the bottom. An extremely simple drum part might look like this:

The symbol at the end is probably worrying you — permit me to elucidate... it's an accented crash cymbal note, which sounds like this:

(The little sign above the note (>) is an accent sign, meaning 'hit it a bit harder'.)

Cymbal parts are written resting on the top line of the stave. Their rhythm is denoted by small crosses rather than ordinary notation, which serves to differentiate them from drum parts — this can be a great help when a part is very busy as it offers the eye a contrasting feature. Here are the cymbal notes written alongside their equivalent in normal notation:

Hi-hat parts (if the hi-hat is played with a stick) are written on the same space as the other cymbals:

As the same line therefore serves for crash, ride and hi-hat cymbals, it is necessary to specify which one is to be played. If more than one cymbal is to be played simultaneously, leger lines can be used to create an extra space above the first cymbal space:

As a general rule then, the whole drum kit is written across the bass stave with high sounds at the top and low sounds at the bottom. The only exception to this rule is that when the hi-hat is pedalled, rather than struck with a stick, it is written down on the bottom space with the bass drum:

If, on some beats, the two are played simultaneously, the cross indicating the hi-hat beat sits on the stem of the bass drum note:

Open or shut hi-hat can be indicated by means of writing noughts or crosses above the notes, eg:

(Obviously, this can only apply when the hi-hat is sticked.)

When lots of tom toms are employed, the parts can be written across two linked staves:

so that a multiple tom tom break could be written:

The exact positioning of each drum on the stave then depends on the number of toms in use. A simple instruction to 'run round the kit' might be simpler here, but tireless wags such as Bob Emmines have been known to leap up, tear round the front of their kit, and crash back on to their stools when confronted with such a command. (You need a sense of humour to play in Let My People Come every night for two years.)

Personally, I think it's a real bore for the drummer to be told exactly what to do in drum breaks, because it destroys all spontaneity and negates the possibility of using imagination. How would you like to sit there for hours going 'boum kaf boum kaf' waiting patiently for the opportunity to lash out with a 'phlakaton phlakaton raka-taka boum bediddley BISH'* only to be told on arriving at the 128th bar that the arranger had a 'dugga dugga dugga dugga ping' in mind? However, there are plenty of arrangers around who think they know best, and people planning hit singles don't like to leave anything to chance.

* (Editor's note: this phrase incorporates an ad — unpaid for! — in that Phlakaton is the title of a track on old Stewart's combo's new platter. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.)

Most drummers that I know actually use notation as a rough guide only. They'll have a sketch of the structure of the piece, eg:

and then will write in accents wherever relevant:

This means that they are then free to play in their own style throughout the piece while knowing where they are on the chart. The great advantage that 'reading' drummers have over non-readers is an ability to run mentally through a piece just by looking through a written part; this saves the rest of the group having to play the number 35 times at a rehearsal till the drummer 'gets it' (by which time the rest of the group will be sick of playing the piece and the HP company will have repossessed all the equipment).

Also, a drummer who can write music will be able to jot down interesting little rhythmic patterns etc that need to be remembered, and be able to refer to them at any time without all the paraphernalia of tape recorders.

A couple more small points about drum notation. The only way a drummer can sustain a 'note' on an ordinary drum is to play a roll. If a note lasting a whole 4/4 bar was required, it would be written:

which is actually shorthand for:

In classical percussion notation (say, for example, an orchestral snare drum part) the same thing would be written:

Cowbell parts are written with small diamonds, ie:

Parts for cowbells are written on the cymbal space. The more alert among you will be protesting that, even at a fast tempo, a cowbell note couldn't possibly last as long as a whole bar... well. I've got news for you: you're absolutely right. But it might occur occasionally as a rolled note:

even though one shudders to think of the musical effect. Kindly add the 'rolled cowbell semibreve' to your growing list of impressive-sounding musical rarities, along with the Hemidemisemiquaver and the Double Flat (three room k&b, no Asians). Then, when the existence of such things is challenged or smirked at by some doubting anti-technicalist, you can point out (in a voice oozing with smug satisfaction), 'Ah, but you know dear boy, they do exist.'

And much good may it do you. Farewell till next month.

Series - "Music"

Read the next part in this series:

Music (Part 8)
(SI Mar 79)

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 (Viewing) | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

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Redmere Soloist Amp

Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Jan 1979

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Music Theory



Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 (Viewing) | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

Feature by Dave Stewart

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> That Celebrated, Cultivated,...

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> Redmere Soloist Amp

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