Published on Sunday, 25 April 2010 16:00
Written by Bruce Gale
One of the most difficult problems facing a percussionist is how to interpret the notation, particularly in the case of untuned percussion. Various systems are in common use. A conventional five line staff employing the bass clef used to be the most common, even though in most cases no specific pitch was really intended. Some composers, however, have been known to use the treble clef and (even more confusingly) the alto and tenor clefs. More recently, composers have begun adopting a neutral or “percussion” clef for non-tuned percussion instruments. But while this seems to make more sense, the practice is by no means universal, and confusion can still arise if more than two or three percussion parts are written on a single score.
Illustrated below is the usual way many composers distinguish between the regular instruments of a standard drum set. Unfortunately, it is by no means universal.
As if that wasn’t enough, many composers sometimes write as if they were unaware of the varying degrees of damping provided by percussion instruments. A crotchet (quarter note) played by a timpani, for example, will sound much longer than a crotchet played by a snare drummer. A cymbal crash will sound even longer. Does the composer wish the sound to be dampened or to ring out? Yet another issue is the interpretation of a roll. Should the performer tie a roll into a successive one, even if no tie is specifically written in?
Some of these issues have been resolved by common practice. In the orchestral and band literature, notes of a long duration are not rolled but only struck once on the xylophone unless the composer specifies otherwise. In solo literature, however, the rules are less clear cut. Resolving such issues relies heavily on the experience and musicality of the percussionist as well as the preferences of the conductor.