Electronic Composition
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What’s the deal with drum set notation?

Here’s a video of a basic rock drum groove written in standard music notation.

This video might be shocking if you’ve never seen drum set notation before. Why are there so many x shaped note heads? Is there any logic behind the placement of the notes? How do you know which drums to hit?

In truth, there isn’t one agreed upon set of rules for notating drum set. There are, however, a few basic guidelines we can follow:

  • Regular note heads indicate drums. The bottom space is typically reserved for the bass drum (aka kick drum), the third space from the bottom is usually snare drum, and the other lines and spaces are assumed to be toms.
  • “x” shape note heads are used for metallic sounds. The hi-hat is usually placed on the space above the top line, the ride cymbal is on the top line, and the crash cymbal is the first ledger line above the staff.
  • In general it’s a good idea to include a notation key whenever writing for percussion clef instruments, but it’s absolutely necessary when adding non-standard instruments to a drum set like tambourine, cowbell, clave, or woodblocks.