How To Write For Percussion

What Is A Percussion Instrument?

Maybe this is just my perception, but, when it comes to music composing and production discussions, it seems like percussion instruments and rhythm gets far less attention (less tutorials, study, less Youtube videos, etc) than the tonal instruments and aspects of the orchestra. However, there is certainly no shortage of percussion sample libraries to choose from! And, this can make it harder to wrap your head around things when you’re first learning because: There are just so_many_sounds to choose from.

And what are all these percussion instruments out there?

If you purchase a modern percussion library, like Heavyocity’s Damage, you might find all sorts of wild objects being used as percussion — such as dumpsters,  crow bars, car parts and plastic cylinders. For this discussion, I will be focused mostly on the traditional percussion instruments of an orchestra — we’ll save the dumpsters and crow bars for a future discussion, I promise.

Epic Percussion Heavyocity Damage Dumpster

My Piano Is Really A Drum?

As well, tonal instruments, like the piano and xylophone, are technically part of the percussion family (did you know that?) However, for the purposes of keeping things simple for this first post, I will try to keep to (mostly) non-tonal instruments. We will cover more of the tonal percussion instruments in future posts.

Orchestral Percussion Instruments

If we zoom in on an orchestra’s percussion section, we might find some familiar percussion instruments, including:

  • Bass Drums
  • Snare Drums
  • Cymbals
  • Shakers
  • Other metals (eg Hi Hat, Triangle)
  • Toms
  • Wood Blocks
  • Timpani ( tonal instrument)
  • Mallets (tonal instrument)

(I include Timpani and Mallets, as they are so common in the orchestra, but do keep in mind that they are tonal instrument, capable of playing actual notes.)

https://www.orsymphony.org/learning-community/instruments/percussion/

The Frequency Ranges

Similar to orchestrating for strings and other tonal instruments, the first step in understanding how to approach composing and arranging percussion instruments, is to understand where each instrument fits in the full frequency spectrum (20hz to 20k). A common way to make this easier to follow, is to break up the full frequency spectrum into 3-5 separate ranges. I usually choose a 4-range division like this:

  • Low: < 100hz
  • Low-Mid: 100hz to 1000k
  • Mid-High: 1k to 8k
  • High:: > 8k
how to write for percussion frequency ranges Frequency Spectrum

This is my general view of the frequency ranges. You will see other versions of this that might look a little different and could include more — or less — ranges and could have values “bleeding” across one another. Note that the two “MID” ranges are taking up most of the spectrum. By comparison, the LOW and the HI are rather small. Therefore, it’s quite helpful to break the MIDs in to at least 2 or 3 ranges like I do here, so that we can get more specific about where a given instrument will sit in the spectrum.

Step One: Map Each Instrument To A Frequency Range

Following the ranges I define above, my first step would be to put the orchestral percussion instruments into the following frequency ranges:

  • Low : Bass Drum, Lowest Timpani
  • Low-Mid: Toms, Timpani, Mallets
  • Hi-Mid: Snare Drums, Wood Block, Mallets
  • Hi: Cymbals, Other metals (eg Hi Hat, Triangle)

Of course, this is not 100% perfect; some instruments might have larger ranges and could cross multiple categories. For example, timpani can get rather low, but, it also has some higher notes that bring it into the low-mid range. There are many different snares and toms and metals and they often bleed into multiple ranges as well. If you’re working with different instruments (including any dumpsters) you would first identify the frequency ranges for each instrument so that you know where they fit in the full frequency spectrum.

Step Two: Make Sure Frequency Spectrum Is Covered

Just as with orchestration for strings, or rock music, or music production in general, each instrument in an ensemble needs to play a role and “fit” into it’s space in the frequency spectrum of the piece. First, this helps to create a rich, full-sounding final production because we are filling more of the available frequencies with sound = fuller sound.  Additionally, by giving each instrument it’s own “space” within the spectrum, we allow each instrument — and the part it is performing — to be “heard” with more clarity and impact as there is less chance instruments will be covering each other up (i.e. “stepping on each others toes.”) Therefore, understanding the frequency ranges of your instruments, is key for learning how to write for percussion.

Layering = Full Sound

I will be discussing layering instruments more in a future post, but, it’s important to call out that part of creating a full sound in this way is by layering instruments across all the ranges. One of the most powerful ways to see this in action is with a low drum hit (eg a bass drum.) Want to make that bass drum even more big and powerful? Don’t add more low drums, instead, layer it with a high wood block or similar higher-ranged metal. Then maybe layer a mid-range snare or tom or mallet. This approach often works better because it creates a sound that fills a much larger part of the full frequency spectrum (not just beefing-up the lows.) As well, the tones created by the higher-range instruments creates a punctuation to the sound that a low instrument alone just cannot do.

No More Mud

For example, if we created an arrangement that had many different low frequency drums, such as a bass drum — all playing different patterns at the same time, with all the instruments sharing the same ranges at the same time — it will become more difficult to hear each individual drum pattern. As well, because of the nature of low frequencies, it might also turn into a muddy, wash of sound as all those heavy low tones blur together.

To be clear, this “mud” example might be the sound you’re after. However, for the purposes of discussing best practices for how to write for percussion, we usually find that separating each musical part (and/or drum pattern) into it’s own specific frequency range, as defined above, it best. This is because it will provide a more clear and more powerful performance as we can better identify each of the individual parts being played.

Break Out The Jazz Drums

So, knowing this information, we can more confidently write a percussion arrangement that fills the full frequency spectrum without instruments covering each other up. You can use a bass drum to handle the low end; toms to cover the low-middle; the snare in the hi-mid; and put cymbals, shaker or hi-hat on the very top. This arrangement sounds very similar to jazz, rock and pop drums …. wait, I thought we were talking about orchestras here? Isn’t it interesting it is to see that a drum set used by a lone jazz drummer, can also cover a full spectrum of percussion frequencies!

Step 3: Arrange The Percussion Parts

Knowing where to place each instrument instrument inside of it’s own range is the first step. Once we get that, our next step is to compose musical parts for each of these voices (ranges). As I mentioned above, the goal is to give each instrument range it’s own unique part. While it’s OK to have multiple bass drums playing at once, or multiple snare drums playing at the same time, it’s better if each of those instrument groups were playing the same part, respectively.

For example: All bass drums play same bass drum part while all snare drums play the same snare drum part, etc. The use of many drums will provide that “big” loud sound — assuming that’s the sound we want — but, because each instrument range is playing it’s own part, we will be able to “hear” it distinctively against everything else that is playing at the same time.

How To Write For Percussion: Keep The Low Range Simple

We can then take this concept further, and assign general rules of thumb for rhythmic complexity to each frequency range. Of course, this is just a general rule, but we usually increase the rhythmic complexity of a part with the raising in frequency. In other words, the higher frequencies usually take the more complex rhythmic parts. This often mean they use more sub-divisions of notes (i.e. more notes within a given space of time).

Meanwhile, the lower frequencies perform the more simple, less-busy parts with less notes in a given space of time.

In musical terms, we’d explain this as: the bass drum plays the whole and half notes; the toms play quarter notes; the snares take the eighth notes; and the hi-hat and cymbals take the sixteenth and thirty-second notes. Again, this is a rough, rule of thumb. But, the idea is that as we lower the frequency, we lower the complexity and speed of the performance.

how to write for percussion music notes

Bass In Your Face

Just like with other forms of musical arrangement or even sound production, the low frequencies take of a lot of space down there on the bottom. Lower frequencies can often be more difficult for our ears to hear clearly, and, as mentioned above, they can create a muddy sound when there are too many low frequencies playing together and/or playing too fast or complex of a part.

We often say:

“Bass Is Felt Not Heard.”

That said, low frequencies are great for laying the foundation of a piece of music. We use bass drums and low tonal instruments (eg bass guitar, double bass, tuba, bassoon) to provide a steady glue that keeps the rhythmic elements of our music in place.

And, in the case of tonal instruments, we use the low instruments to help define the harmonic structure of our progression. For example, in musical terms, our lowest instrument often plays the root note of each chord in the progression. This set the root note for the rest of the harmonics to layer on top of, and create the full harmony. By keeping these foundation simple, and clear, and without the clutter of repetitive notes which can ofter muddy-up our low end ranges, we give our listener a solid, clear foundation to follow. We can then layer more complex rhythms on top.

Four On The Floor

And, it’s not just for orchestral music. If you study virtually any other musical genre, including rock, pop, electronic, country, jazz, you’ll this same structure followed just about everywhere! Think about the bass drum for a rock drum performance. While there are certainly some drummers with amazingly fast feet, most will keep a simple, steady, half or quarter note pattern on the bass drum (beats 1 and 3); while they introduce more complex rhythms on the toms and snares – to create excitement and interest. To round it off, they use the hi-hat (the highest range) to play the faster, eighth or sixteenth note patterns that fill in the full frequency spectrum and drive the music forward.

As a super quick and dirty example, please check out the screenshot below from a drum pattern (shown in MIDI.) Starting at the top, the HIGH frequency, played on Shakers, is the most busy as it plays a repeating eighth note pattern. On the bottom, the LOW range, played on a Bass drum is the most sparse, playing a single whole note hit at the beginning of each bar. The MID ranges, played on toms and snares, fill in the rest of the frequency range, and introduce interest and excitement by being more complex against the single bass drum,  yet not as busy and repetitive as the shaker in the High range.

how to write for percussion frequency ranges

How To Write For Percussion – Summary

To be clear, this last musical example might just be the most boring piece of music ever written! However, for learning how to write for percussion, my point is just to help explain these 3 main steps I follow:

  1. map each instrument to it’s appropriate frequency range
  2. make sure to have instruments that cover the full frequency spectrum (this is often dependent on the style/genre of music.)
  3. arrange the parts so that the low frequency ranges are the most sparse and the higher ranges take the busier, more complex parts

I hope this first post on learning how to write for percussion was helpful. I wanted to keep it basic and focused on the frequency range concepts first. In future posts I will get into more advanced topics including rhythm and polyrhythms, tempo, velocity, articulations, accents/punctuation,, layering, hybrid and sound design, processing and production. Whew…that is a lot…I better get started!

Writing For Percussion: Where Do I Start?

Below is a screenshot of the main control panel in Logic Pro. This is is where I start when I’m setting up my new project in my studio. It also happens to include many of the key foundational concepts we’ll be covering in this post; therefore, it’s a good place to start as we blend these traditional musical concepts with modern digital music production. Referring to the screenshot, these concepts include: BAR, BEAT, TEMPO (shown here as 120) and the meter (shown here as 4/4). (This panel view also shows the key, Cmaj, but that will be for another post.)

What Is A Bar In Music?

A bar is a  segment of time represented by a set number of Beats. For example. If we say there will be 4 beats in every Bar, then, each Bar will hold 4 beats. Each Bar is separated by a vertical line. You can almost think of a Bar as a sentence, where every sentence has the same number of words (beats) and ends with a period (vertical line.) The screenshot below shows 3 empty bars. At this point, it’s just showing that we have 3 containers (“Bars”) waiting to hold a set number of beats.

What Is A Beat In Music, You Ask?

A beat defines the basic unit of time in music. This is often described as a pulse, because it keeps going on and on, even as the musical notes and rhythms start and stop (aka rhythm). It’s often referred to as a clock, or, as in modern music production, “the click”, because we use it to get all of our various instruments to sync together in time (sync to the same beat.). Don’t get a “Beat” confused with the rhythm of the song (for example, what the drums might play). And don’t get Beat confused with a Note. Remember, the Beat is constant and is used to keep the time for all the notes and rhythms (aka “the music”) that we hear. Notes will start, stop, change patterns, tones, etc – this is what creates the music. The Beat, is what we tap our feet to, but doesn’t have its own independent sound.

Tempo: How Fast Do We Play?

Tempo might be the easiest musical concept to understand. It’s also one of the first things we consider whenever we listen to, play or compose any piece of music. When we listen to music, while we might not be aware of it, our brains are “hearing” how fast it is being played. And, when we are getting ready to compose or play music ourselves, the first thing we ask is “how fast do we play?”

When composing a new piece of music in my DAW, the first thing I set is the tempo. Even if I change it throughout the composition process (and I do change!) I need to have a starting point to get a feel for how the music will be played. (After-all, music is a temporal art form.)

Tempo  is measured in BPM, or Beats Per Minute. For example, a tempo set to 120, means that 120 beats happen every minute. Obviously, if you raise that value up, there are more beats per minute, which would give the effect of the music moving faster. Conversely, lowering the BPM will make it sound slower.

Time Signature

Remember the screenshot above of the 3 bars? (I’ve re-pasted it below.) The time signature, also called, “the meter,” helps us to know what to fill inside those Bars. Specifically, we look at those two numbers: 4 and 4, to learn that the Bars that follow this signature, will have 4 beats (top number) of a quarter note value (bottom number.) I’ll cover more on note values below, for now, imagine that a Whole note was divided into 4 – you’d have 4 quarter notes:

1 Whole Note = 4 quarter notes

1 Quarter Note = 1/4.

This is how we get the value of 4. If you don’t already know, the signature 4/4 is by far the most common time signature in all of music. Certainly in most popular and modern music.

Of course, 4/4 the not the only signature possible. 6/8 would be 6 beats of eighth note values; 3/4 would be 3 beats of quarter note value, 2/2 would be 2 beats of half note value (whole note divided by 2) and so on.

Each time signature creates a unique sound to the rhythm of the music as it defines the strong (emphasized) beats that we follow. Each time a bar starts over, we listen for that first beat in order to follow the overall rhythm we are hearing. 4/4 is the most popular because it naturally creates a very steady, expected rhythm. This is because it’s an evenly divided set of beats where we can give the same emphasis to the downbeat notes each time the bar repeats. For example:

1 (strong),

2 (soft),

3 (strong),

4 (soft)

1 (strong),

2 (soft),

3 (strong),

4 (soft)

Notice how the alternating strong/soft beats continue on like this forever. Each time we hit a 1 or a 3, we know we’ll hear that strong beat.

Converse this with a 3/4, where we only have 3 beats per Bar:

1 (strong),

2 (soft),

3 (strong),

1 (strong),

2 (soft),

3 (strong),

With 3/4, we’ll hear 2 strong beats in a row each time the bar repeats. This creates a very different sound. The best way to imagine it, is to think of a waltz. Waltz music is most always done in 3/4 because it creates the sound needed for that type of music: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. If you sing that in your head, you’ll know what I mean!

Writing For Percussion: Note Values

OK, now it’s finally time to fill in those Bars! Referring to our time signature of 4/4, we now need to place 4 quarter notes (1/4)  into each of our bars. Which would look like this:

The above rhythm would be counted as 1, 2, 3, 4 (did you guess that?)

I Need A Rest From All This Percussion.

You might be asking yourself, “what if I don’t want to play 4 notes each Bar?” Well, we have a visual way to show that, it’s called a “rest”. In the example screenshot below, we have a quarter note rest on Beats 2 and 4. This means we don’t play anything on those beats.

I think this example also helps make the concept of a Beat more clear. Notices how we always have those 4 Beats to keep our time constant — but the notes can start, stop (rest) whenever.

I bet you’re wondering what 3/4 would look like?

The above rhythm would be counted as 1, 2, 3, 1 and so on….. Note how the second “1” starts a new bar.

OK, enough of that fancy 3/4 stuff, let’s go back to our simple 4/4. If we split each quarter note in half — this is called subdividing —  we get 2 eighth notes for each quarter:

The above rhythm would take the same amount of time (beats) as the previous example, but have twice as many notes and would be counted as 1 &, 2 &, 3 &, 4 &.

Note how there are still 4 quarter notes (1 for each beat), but now we have a second note placed between each one. Subdividing a quarter note like this, creates 2 eighth note values.

Let’s Keep Subdividing Those Notes

What comes after eighth notes? Sixteenth notes, of course. We now are fitting 4 notes in one beat! Lots of notes now. Where the eighth notes are connected with a single bar, notice how these sixteenth notes have double bars connecting them.

The above is counted as: 1_e_&_a, 2_e_&_a, 3_e_&_a, 4_e_&_a – that’s 16 notes altogether!


The above rhythm shows a combo of sixteenth and eighth notes. Remember that the (4) sixteenth notes take the same amount of time to complete as (2) eighth notes – so they are played twice as fast.

Triple My Percussion, Baby

But we can do more! Instead of just subdividing notes in half, we can also break them up into un-even values, like 3 for every 2. These are called triplets. In the screenshot below notice how 3 notes are taking of the space of 2 eighth notes. Triplets are counted as “1, 2, 3” in the same time as an eighth note would be counted as 1 &. So, we are breaking this time up into thirds for a triplet. They can be a little challenging at first, at least for me, but triplets can introduce a lot of rhythmic interest and dynamics to a musical piece. When writing for percussion, be sure to explore triplets!

Writing For Percussion: Now It’s Time For Quantization

Up until now, you might be thinking, “this basic musical stuff is helpful, but how does it help me with writing for percussion in digital music production?” Of course, for me, being able to count rhythms properly helps me tremendously whenever I’m working on a new composition, or playing music live or learning a new piece of music (perhaps from another composer.) The ability to count a rhythm quickly, means I can also “hear” how new layers of rhythms will work on top of each other. These more complex rhythms, including polyrhythms, will be focused on in a future post on writing for percussion. For now, I wanted to briefly discuss quantization, as it’s so relevant for modern digital music production.

As I was typing this out, I was trying to think of the best way to explain quantization. I will give it a shot, but first, feel free to read what it says about Quantization on Wikipedia.

Did you read that? It’s a very good explanation, but just in case it was too wordy (or nerdy), I would simplify a little by saying that quantization is a process that helps move our musical notes back on beat. For example, if you’re recording in a phrase on a MIDI keyboard, and that performance sounds “off” with with the beat (and/or off with other instruments recorded), it’s possible that those notes got placed “off” where they should be. With modern technology, we can actually see this in action – and fix it!

Before we get too far ahead, it’s important to understand one more key concept: The Grid. The can be thought of as a visual representation of many of the concepts we covered in this post. Essentially, it shows us EXACTLY where the perfect beat, as well as all the subdivisions associated with that beat, would land for any given piece of music. Refer to the screenshot below. The faint gray lines is the Grid. How many of these lines moving horizontally from left to right (aka the fidelity), show us a zoomed-in or zoomed-out visual of subdivisions of our beat. So, you could zoom out and only see 1 gray line for every quarter note, or 1 gray line for every eighth, or sixteenth, etc. If you were a perfect player (or a robot), you would only play notes that fall on these gray lines. (More on this later.)

Look closely at the green notes in the MIDI piano roll below. See how some notes are behind a gray line, while others are ahead of a gray line? This is an example of notes not falling on “the grid” and happens ALL the time with recorded MIDI.

quantizing in music quarter notes off the grid
quantizing in music quarter notes off grid

To get our notes back on the grid, we can use the quantization feature of our DAW. In the example below, we are looking at quarter notes (1/4) being slightly off. Therefore, we can select to quantize to the nearest quarter note. This is how this feature works: you are choosing which closest note value to “move” the notes to.

quantizing in music quarter notes on the grid
quantizing in music quarter notes on the grid

Now let’s take a look at our notes. After quantization, they are all lining up nice and perfectly on the grid.

quarter notes after quantizing

What Happened To The Grove?

OK, now that we understand what quantization does, here is the BIG question: “Do We Want to Use it?” One of the things people complain about with some digital music, is that it sounds too perfect – robotic, or just lacking “feel.” And, sometimes, are friend quantization is exactly to blame. While the intentions are good, if we use too much quantization, it can contribute to an unnatural, or even robotic-sounding piece of music. Of course, there are many factors that contribute to the “feel” of music – it’s not all about using quantization or not using it.

Quantization is a powerful tool that, when used right, can help our music sound tighter, and even HELP it groove and feel more natural. But, it does take work to find the right balance. Here’s some tips and tricks for how to approach using quantization:

Strength. Most all quantization features will allow you to adjust how much of it you want to apply (aka the strength.) Here’s the first place to start. If you applied a decent amount of quantization, and your music is sounding too stiff,  begin to lower that strength value. As you do so, you will bring the notes closer to their original state. However, because you are still applying quantization at some level, you will get the benefit of still making the music sound tighter. It will literally be different for every piece of music you record, especially with different performers and different MIDI controllers, etc. You have to work to find the right balance. This is why this process take time and is a true art! As a very general starting point, I seem to find decent balances around 80% quantization. But again, this is so general – always play around with quantization to see how, or if, it can help your recorded MIDI performance.

Swing. Most all quantization features will allow you to adjust how much swing you want to place into the music. Yes, “swing.” Swing actually purposely moves the notes back off the grid, in a “musical” way, that helps to losen-up the performance. Think of how certain drummers, (eg big band) played slightly behind the beat, and/or with a loser, more swinging style. In the screenshot below, we have reduced the quantization strength to 80, and bumped up the swing to 20. This can be a good place to start.

what is quantization swing

By the way, here is how the music notation looks AFTER we have quantized and added swing:

Wait a minute – it looks just like it did before? This is because quantization should ONLY impact the performance of the music. The original composition remains the same – but the interpretation of the music (aka “the performance”), it where quantization comes in.

Humanize. Another very powerful quantization tool is called Humanize. This tool introduces randomization to a MIDI performance. You can usually randomize several aspects, including note position (similar to what we did above), note length (make some notes longer, some shorter) and note velocity (make some notes hit harder vs softer.) Because human performers are not perfect, we introduce much of this randomness when we play – this is what makes a piece of music sound more natural and real. Therefore, by introducing more randomness on purpose, we can get closer to how a “human” would perform. Once again, this is a very powerful tool, and needs to be handled with care. Using too much can complete destroy the music (thankfully we have the Undo button!) Also, because these values are random (and random in any direction) it can sometimes have a less musical result verse the examples above. Definitely use humanize, but go slowly!

Summary

I hope this was a helpful post. Hopefully you can see how all these concepts fit together. It’s important to first understand the basics of music notation including tempo, note values and writing and counting rhythms. This sets your foundation for then using the various tools in your DAW, and other plugins and software interfaces that interact with these exact concepts.

Once again, be sure to read my first post in this series, How to Write for Percussion: The Frequency Ranges, where I cover the importance of knowing the frequencies of the families of percussion instruments.

And also check out my entire Intro to Sample Libraries series!