Composing Music – Part 1 – Exploring Rhythm

Whilst having completed up to grade 5 ABRSM theory exams and currently on Grade 7, I am familiar with The AB Guide to Music Theory Part 1 by Eric Taylor however I have re- read these chapters.

Focus on Rhythm

Untuned Percussion

Most of these are allocated single line stave and the following are the suggested guidelines.

Metallic instruments first, highest sounds at the top.


Cymbal (high and low, suspended with two beaters)

Less controlled cymbal “clash” – two cymbals brought together lightly or heavily.

Gong and Tam Tam

The Tambourine is a hybrid and might be placed next

Wooden Instruments – some instruments will need more than one stave


Wood blocks (sometimes called Chinese wood blocks -) – allocated a two line stave, produce sounds ar two contrasting indeterminate pitches.(refer to Oxford dictionary of music)

Temple Blocks (sometimes called Korean temple blocks) – sets of five ornamental hollow wooden skull or clam shaped blocks in different sizes approximating a pentatonic scale. Usually noted on a five line stave. ((refer to Oxford dictionary of music).

Below these are the membranes – highest to lowest.

Snare Drum (side drum – snares are ON by default)

Tom Toms


Tenor Drum

Bass Drum

Drum Kit (drum Set) – usually notated on a five line stave, notation is generally minimal as most jazz drummers find it easier to improvise than to read the music.

As I am getting used to Sibelius I decided to try the layout for percussion using as many instruments as they had. This is what I initially came up with in the hope I have done it correctly as stated.

I now have to bear in mind the sticks or beaters that are used with percussion instruments and how the other instruments are played. The harder the stick the thinner and brighter the sound produced. Normally a metal beater is used for the triangle. Large soft headed sticks are normal used for gigs and tam tams, but for these instruments wooden side drum sticks would create a different sound. Wood blocks and temple blocks wicked be played with marimba mallets or snare drum sticks.

Untuned percussion notation

For sustaining instruments )cymbals, gongs tam tams) the duration of notes need to be accurately indicated from the start to the point of finish when the sound is dampened and stopped. Drums have very little resonance, and there is virtually no difference between a staccato semiquaver and an unmarked crotchet. Percussion players take the tremolo to indicate measured notes. The trill on untuned percussion is a multi stroke unmeasured roll.

I listed to example two, and it is odd trying to listen and follow with the notes. It is very strange getting used to listening to the drum going through the notes.

Indication of speed and dynamic are essential, even in the rough sketches for a piece. Without known how quickly or slowly or how loudly or softly the composer intends the performance to be, the player cannot easily judge the notation or what it all adds up to. The composer makes decisions, for example about whether to use a group of crotchets at a fast temp,or semiquavers at a slower speed.

Research point

I am already familiar with Tempo but I have read the chapter in The AB guide just to refresh my knowledge. I have also started to do some reading from the essential reading list. I thought it would be a goo idea to read about percussion as this is not a field I am familiar with. I have summarised my thoughts on this book Holland J (2005) Practical Percussion – a guide to the instruments and their sources.

Dynamics should be carefully thought about, remembering that a triangle ff is much softer than the cymbal or tam-tam with the same marking. Crescendos and decrescendos should have clearly marked starts and finishes, players will adapt their technique to these differing requirements.

Project 1 – Percussion Solos

So my task is toto compose four contrasting pieces demonstarting the different characteristics of some untuned percussion instruments….and here is my first epic moment of doubt in my abilities as I am struggling with this already. I have had to compose pieces when doing theory exams but percussion seems to have me at a moment where I am wondering if I have made the biggest mistake in my life. I have literally played around with this for weeks and I have come to the conclusion that I just need to get it done and let my tutor decide if it is bad or not. I am also still getting to grips with Sibelius…that could be another few pages on its own!

For my first one I chose the snare drum.

example 1
Example 1 audio

For my second piece I chose the triangle. I am not sure whether I have this right or not but I found this easier to compose.

example 2
example 2

I decided to go with Woodblocks for my third piece and I found this a pleasant instrument to work with. My only problem I think is that my work feels naive as my music teacher would say, because I am having trouble finding certain notation for my pieces using Sibelius. I really need to get to grips with this.

This is the piece that I have produced for woodblocks

example 3
example 3

My final piece is for cymbals and this has been a struggle. Starting this part of the course is knocking my confidence a bit as I do feel that I am not really making much of the projects that are being given to me. No doubt my tutor will give me feedback. I shall move on and see what mess I can make of the next set of projects.


Project 2 – Duets

As I start this I have absolutely no idea if I am doing this correctly or not, so here we go completely into the further unknown. Am I being too naive or am I heading in the right direction.

This duet is for woodblocks and snare drum

Woodblocks and snare drum duet
Woodblocks and snare drum duet audio

For my next duet I chose to use the Tambourine and the Side Drum and tried to make some kind of conversation between the two of them. I am a little happier with the way in which this has turned out as I am getting more to grips with Sibelius and its commands. Now I have worked out how to add the decrescendo and crescendo notations I am happier with the overall sound of it.

Side Drum Tambourine Duet
Side Drum and Tambourine Duet

Now for the next set and some fun with variable metre. I am dreading this, I know what it is but it is getting it right.

This piece took a particularly long time as I was playing around with instruments and mixes and I did not like some of the mixes. I wanted to use woodblocks so I decided to create my variable metre using woodblocks first and then I chose my complimentary instrument and after playing about I chose the tenor drum. I then played around with the sounds but I decided that I liked the way it was, a heavy sound all the way through. This is why I chose heavy as I think it works with the heavy sound on both. The variable metre in this piece has been constructed thus :- 3+2, 2+3, 1+4, 4+1. I now hope that I have done this correctly.

Tenor drum and Woodblock variable metre

This is my final piece and yet again I find myself using the woodblocks. I like the sound they produce and this is why I like using them, I like it when they double up – its an instrument that I probably would have loved to have a go at some time.

Bass Drum and Woodblocks variable metre

Bass Drum and Woodblocks variable metre
Research Point

Variable metre and Boris Blacher

Listening Log