Key to Rhythm Notation

Here's a key to the symbols used in notating African drum rhythms (and here's a printable version). Don't worry, many of these below are rarely used, and are just included for completeness.

Symbols used for African drumming notation

X = loud bell/block/clave/shekere  x = quiet bell/block/clave/shekere
K = Kenkeni (high pitch Dun Dun)   k = trapped/closed* Kenkeni
G = Sangban (mid pitch Dun Dun)    g = trapped/closed* Sangban
D = Dununba (low pitch Dun Dun)    d = trapped/closed* Dununba
B = drum bass                      b = drum bass flam ("bdum")
O = drum open tone                 o = drum open tone flam ("plum")
C = drum closed* tone              c = drum closed* tone flam
S = drum slap                      s = drum slap flam
E = drum edge tone ("ping")        e = drum edge tone flam ("pling")
M = drum muted** tone              p = drum bass+tone flam
W = drum slap + wave :-)           r = right (/main) hand
Z = trapped/closed* slap           l = left (/other) hand
F = flam (main then other hand)    f = flam (other then main hand)
t = touch/tip/ghost/timing note    h = heel (conga timing note)
. = rest (or ghost/timing note)    | = bar line
- = sustain the previous note      : = repeat
_ = slur from one pitch to another ' = breathe here
> = accent                         + = continue onto next line
$ = start here

                                _3_                            __6___
Triplets can be written as S3 = SSS   and sextuplets as O3O3 = OOOOOO

*tone to be damped by leaving the hitting hand/beater stuck on the drum
**keep heel of other hand muting tone of main hand, just lift fingers


The need for standardised notation

Some drummers develop their own idiosyncratic methods of writing down rhythms so they can remember them. While any aid to learning and recall is helpful, using a non-standard notation system is a bad idea, since nobody else can understand it; many such methods are time-consuming, and not even accurate in different time signatures. The method described here is a widely understood form used by many people, with some specialist enhancements.

When learning new patterns, you need to be able to write them down fast and correctly, so that you are not holding up the class or getting behind. Conventional percussion notation is way too slow to use, and suffers from bad portability issues in electronic media (unless someone fixes this soon, it will become extinct - perhaps MusicXML can help?). Also, many people don't read music notation these days either. I'm a composer and yet I still use the methods described here to notate rhythms and melodies. Since the majority of African rhythms are in 12/8 and 4/4, the above notation system works well and is easily transmitted electronically in text files. In fact, the act of typing a rhythm in real time resembles playing: by using various keys on the computer keyboard for different sounds and full-stops for rests, you can enter patterns at full speed (or more slowly if necessary) as if programming a drum machine. Provided you are using a fixed-width font, the patterns will instantly tabulate underneath other parts, aiding visibility of polyrhythms in a similar way to TUBS notation, but with invisible boxes that you don't have to draw. Text and HTML files are good because they're easily created and printed, they've been a worldwide standard for decades, and are likely to remain readable in the future unlike most proprietary/closed formats.

The use of B to mean Bass and S to mean Slap are obvious standards. I've extended the palette to use other letters for less commonly used instruments, e.g., G for Sangban. Some djembe players these days use T to mean (Open) Tone, but they don't distinguish between the closed tones also used on congas and other (Ghanaian) drums. I still use O to avoid confusion with t which has traditionally conveyed Touch/Timing notes. Moreover, your tones should have a rounded sound, so a circle is fitting. Various punctuation symbols convey expression in as intuitive ways as possible.

For tunes, I use the syntax of the music language AMPLE, which is elegantly simple and effective for basic melodies. Pitches are notated by note names with CAPITAL letters meaning ascending (or the same) pitch, and lower case letters meaning descending pitches. For simplicity of notation, I'll try and write tunes in a key which avoids sharps and flats; the key is easily transposed when singing. I also use an underscore _ to mean slurring from one pitch to another, dashes --- denote longer held notes, and dots .. are rests. Apostrophes ' are commonly used in conventional music notation to mark where to breathe, in case you forget and die.