Drum Music Notation

Drum Music Notation, and Writing for
Drums and Percussion

Drum Music Notation is built in to Pizzicato Professional and Pizzicato Drums and Percussion specifically. And, because Pizzicato uses the sound card already in your computer or a MIDI interface attached to your computer, you can hear your cadences through your sound card or external synths using MIDI.

Snare Drum

Writing Music Specifically for Percussion

Percussion instruments have very specific needs in music notation and the link between the score and a sound card or a MIDI synth. As you probably know, there are two types of percussion instruments: chromatic percussion instruments such as the xylophone, vibes, timpani, etc… and percussion instruments with an undefined pitch like the bass drum, cymbals, maracas, etc.

Chromatic Percussion music is written on a standard 5 line staff just like a violin or trumpet would be. It is easier to notate and for MIDI because they have a set note value or pitch as any other instrument (you write a C, you hear a C).

For the percussion instruments with an undefined pitch, the situation is different. These instruments do not necessarily have a pitch, thus, a “note of music” loses its melodic meaning. A note is heard as a specific sound like a cymbal crash and is generally not associated to a real note pitch like C, D or E.


Bass Drum


Because a percussion instrument is not normally associated to a specific note of the scale, the mapping of instruments on the lines of a staff are free from particular note constraints. Instead, for percussion and drum music notation, we do not use a standard music staff with a G or F clef, but we use a percussion staff and clef which looks like this:

Drum Music Notation Music Measure

Percussion and Drum Music Notation Convention


On a percussion staff, each line generally represents a particular instrument instead of a note.  Additionally, there are many different conventions used based on the percussion ensemble which the music is written for. Thus, if there are four percussion instruments in an ensemble, a 5 lines staff may be used. You would specify at the beginning of the score which instruments are associated with which line, you could have a staff which looks like this for instance:

Drum Music Notation

Additionally various symbols may be assigned to represent specific instruments (notice in the figure above an “x” represents the cymbal). In Pizzicato, you can select the note head in the Note Head Selection box:

Drum Music Notation Note Heads


Now in contrast to an ensemble score, in a symphonic orchestra scores, one line staves are often used for each percussion instrument and all rhythms are drawn on that line like this:

Drum Music Notation Percussion Staff

With Pizzicato, you can also create one or more percussion staves, each having 1 to 16 lines. You can determine how the lines are displayed with the following dialog box:

Drum music notation staff lines

Using MIDI and the General MIDI Standard For Percussion Instruments and Drum Music Notation

Most of the time, a sound card (or an external synth or soft synth) can play the percussion instruments. Therefore, all the Midi instrument manufacturers developed a standard to help manage the way percussion instruments are mapped or triggered on the musical keyboard.  One example of this standard is MIDI channel 10 which is reserved for percussion instruments.  Thus, when we send a note command to channel 10, the corresponding percussion instrument is heard. Here is the table of percussion instruments available in the sound cards and synthesizers that comply with the General MIDI (GM) standard:


B 0 Acoustic Bass Drum B 2 Ride Cymbal 2
C 1 Bass Drum C 3 Hi Bongo
C# 1 Side Stick C# 3 Low Bongo
D 1 Acoustic Snare Drum D 3 Mute Hi Conga
D# 1 Hand Clap D# 3 Open Hi Conga
E 1 Electric Snare Drum E 3 Low Conga
F 1 Low Floor Tom F 3 High Timbale
F# 1 Closed Hi-Hat F# 3 Low Timbale
G 1 High Floor Tom G 3 High Agogo
G# 1 Pedal Hi-Hat G# 3 Low Agogo
A 1 Low Tom A 3 Cabasa
A# 1 Open Hi-Hat A# 3 Maracas
B 1 Low Mid Tom B 3 Short Whistle
C 2 Hi Mid Tim C 4 Long Whistle
C# 2 Crash Cymbal 1 C# 4 Short Guiro
D 2 High Tom D 4 Long Guiro
D# 2 RIde Cymbal 1 D# 4 Claves
E 2 Chinese Cymbal E 4 Hi Wood Block
F 2 Ride Bell F 4 Low Wood Block
F# 2 Tambourine F# 4 Mute Cuica
G 2 Splash Cymbal G 4 Open Cuica
G# 2 Cowbell G# 4 Mute Triangle
A 2 Crash Cymbal 2 A 4 Open Triangle
A# 2 Vibraslap    

Percussion and Drum Music Notation with Percussion Maps


If we were to place all the instruments on one single staff, the resulting score wouldn’t be legible. So, because only a small number of percussion instruments are generally needed for a song, they are frequently placed on a single staff. To get the correct instrument sounds out of your computer or synth there has to be a way to specify which staff note corresponds to each needed percussion instrument.  Pizzicato, addresses this with percussion maps.  A percussion map or drum map allows you to assign one instrument to each line or between each line of a staff.


Drum Music Notation Instruments

Now, you are not required to change the default drum map but, if you want to you can.  For example, through this dialog box you can easily assign the bass drum to the first line, the snare drum to the second line, the triangle to the third, etc. You control how you want your drum music notation to look.


Drum Music Notation Staves

Using The Prepared Templates For Writing Percussion


You may, of course, create your own percussion map or templates.  To make things easier for you though, Pizzicato has prepared templates which follow the General MIDI standard, based on 5 staves. 

You may use any or all of them. By simply placing a note an a specific line or space on the staff, you will hear the corresponding instrument, played with the rhythm you created. To speed up the  writing of percussion lines in a orchestral score, Pizzicato lets you “drag/drop” one line staves for individual percussion instruments into your orchestral score.

Drum Music Notation Windows

Drums and Percussion Summary


With the above tools from Pizzicato Professional and Pizzicato Drums and Percussion, you will be able to easily create scores for drums and percussion. you can customize the notation or leave it standard. And, with the percussion maps and the prepared templates, Pizzicato will know your instrument layout and thus, play your percussion scores exactly the way you want.

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©2015 Blair Ashby
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All rights reserved for all countries.
Pizzicato text, photos and manual used courtesy of Arpege Music sprl.
All Arpege Music information used with permission.
All information subject to change at any time without prior notice.