The Challenge of Writing For Percussion – Part 2

Picking up from Part 1, we’ll look at some examples of modern pieces for percussion. Again, it must be noted, that once you get beyond the standard snare, timpani, mallets, drum set scoring; writing for percussion can pretty much be a free for all. The main problem is that percussion can not only be just about any and everything that can make a sound, it can also be any number of those things. This can be from 1 drum up to a whole percussion section, played solo, as in Stockhausen’s famous, Zyklus

I could write a major dissertation on percussion notation because it’s so broad and varied. But for our purposes, I’ll keep it more general. Be aware that there are exceptions to every example I will present, as composers have a way of doing their own thing when it comes to percussion notation.

How do you notate all this crazy stuff?

The main thing is try to make your notations and intentions as clear as possible. Once we get beyond pitched percussion, we can dispense with clefs and having anything fixed. Composers often write for a group of objects, say 4, 5, or 6 of a specific item, like wood blocks, cowbells, toms, etc. While not pitched to specific notes, adhere to the standard format and place your highest sounding instrument on top, with the others following in pitch order beneath it.

A good example of this is Frederic Rzewski’s composition, To The Earth (4 measures shown below). This solo is written for spoken voice and 4 standard clay flower pots. You go to the local garden center with a stick or mallet, and pick out 4 pots that form a melodic scale. The actual pitch is unimportant. Rzewski used a 3-line staff with the highest note on top of the staff (see the example below), placing the notes on the spaces. He could’ve used the standard 5-line staff, but he chose 3 lines. Percussionists need to be ready for anything.

The beauty of this is, the score could be for 4 of anything: cowbells, opera gongs, pieces of steel pipe, etc. If you write for a group of 5 instruments, just add another staff line. For 6, use the standard 5-line staff. This is easy to read and play: 

If you add more pitches, ledger lines can be used, or note heads can be placed on the lines.

This type of notation could also work for 4/5/6 different percussion instruments, like 3 bells and 3 toms. You could use x note heads for the bells, and standard note heads for the toms. This makes it easy to differentiate the varied instruments:

The example above could also be 6 different instruments, like  a bell, cymbal and gong on top; and a snare, tom, bass drum on the bottom. While there are no hard and fast rules, it is generally accepted that metal and wood sounds are notated with x note heads. Drummers are used to that, so it makes sense to go with it. 

A deviation from that would be if the example above was for 3 bells and 3 blocks of wood. The blocks could use standard note heads in order to differentiate them from the bells. Again, the idea is to make it easy to read and not confusing. 

What if I have a lot more instruments, or groups of instruments?

If you are moving back and forth between a large assortment of instruments, then multiple staves are a must:

In the 3rd measure we can also see triangle shaped note heads used to differentiate another group of instruments. Of course, when we move from a single instrument, or a single group of instruments, we need to provide a key to designate what those instruments are. Below is a key for the above example:

For multiple percussion, it’s also advisable to provide a set up diagram to help the player navigate the score. Here is Stockhausen’s set up for Zyklus:

Reproduced for educational purposes only.

We are only scratching the surface here. If you are writing for percussion, it’s a good idea to refer to other percussion writing to see what’s out there in the world. 

In part 3, we’ll look at more specific notation and instructions for the player.

~ MB

Deconstruct Yourself™

Articles Origin: The Challenge of Writing For Percussion – Part 2


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