Percussion notation

Percussion notation is a type of musical notation indicating notes to be played by percussion instruments. As with other forms of musical notation, sounds are represented by symbols which are usually written onto a musical staff (or stave).

Percussion instruments are generally grouped into two categories: pitched and non-pitched. The notation of non-pitched percussion instruments is less standardized. Cymbals are usually notated with 'x' note heads, drums with normal elliptical note heads and auxiliary percussion with alternative note heads.[1] Non-pitched percussion notation on a conventional staff once commonly employed the bass clef, but the neutral clef (or "percussion clef"), consisting of two parallel vertical lines, is usually preferred now. It is usual to label each instrument and technique the first time it is introduced, or to add an explanatory footnote, to clarify this. Below is an example of drum set notation.

Key or legend

Each line and space of the staff is assigned a different part or "voice" of the drum kit and these are often laid out at the beginning of a piece of music in what is known as a key or legend or occasionally labeled when initially appear in the piece.[2]

Below are two examples of Drum Legends as they would appear in the music:

Example 1: (Less common)

Drum legend example[2]

Example 2:

Sibelius drum legend.  play 

The notation program Sibelius (as seen in example 2) uses a system based on the recommendations of the Percussive Arts Society found in Norman Weinberg’s Guide To Standardized Drumset Notation (2002, ISBN 0-9664928-1-1).)



Extended to six toms:



Mounted triangle: ledger-line high C with "X" replacing notehead. Maraca: high-B with "+" replacing notehead. Mounted tambourine: high-B with "X" through conventional notehead.


All note letter-names in this section refer to the bass clef.

Rolls: Diagonal lines across stem (or above whole note).

Open hi-hat: o above high-G X.

Closed hi-hat: + above high-G X.

Cross Stick: X in E snare space.

Rim Shot: diagonal slash through note head.

Brush sweep: horizontal line (replacing note head) in E snare space with slur to show brush is not lifted. (With stem this looks rather like a long "T" or a long inverted "T", depending which way the stem is going.)

Dynamic accents

In percussion notation, accents are almost always to be interpreted as dynamic accents. Typically this involves emphasizing the accented note simply by raising the dynamic level. The meanings of the different types of accents are not entirely standard. The image above shows the accent notations most commonly used by composers of percussion music. The tenuto articulation is often used to indicate a slight raise in dynamic, less than a normal accent. Marcato markings typically indicate a more dramatic dynamic change. It is important to note that these markings have different meanings in traditional musical notation for other instruments.


  1. slightly softer than surrounding notes: ˘ (breve above or belowinvertednotehead)
  2. significantly softer than surrounding notes: ( ) (note head in parentheses)
  3. much softer than surrounding notes: [ ] (note head in brackets)

(Ghost note is a less formal alternative term which may refer either to anti-accentuation in general or to a particular degree of anti-accentuation. Ghost notes are often considered to be especially faint.)

See also


  1. Drum Notation -
  2. 1 2 Peckman, Jonathan (2007). Picture Yourself Drumming, p.46. ISBN 1-59863-330-9.
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