As I understand it:
For most percussion instruments "notes" don't really have durations in the same sense as other instruments. Percussion instruments are struck, and thus usually sound with a quick attack and decay, which is (generally) uncontrolled by the performer. Therefore, when notating music for percussion it is usually most useful to use note values that are no longer than a single beat (of the given time signature).

Cymbals (and similar) are often notated with cross note heads (like a ghost note). For percussion, the cross note head emphasises the somewhat meaninglessness of the duration value of percussion notes, unlike the emphasis of the pitchlessness of a true ghost note.

At the end of some music I am writing: the last notes in the piece occur on the 3rd beat of a bar of 4/4.
This leaves a problem as for what to write for the percussion (tambourine) on the last two beats:

  • A cross headed minim / half note could be used here (to match with the other instruments note values):
    cross headed minim
    But the symbol for this isn't used very often, and is very ugly. And as mentioned before, the percussion probably shouldn't have note values that are greater than a beat.

  • Alternatively, the percussion line could end with a crotchet / quarter note on beat 3, followed by a rest to fill the bar:
    crotched and rest
    It looks really weird to have that (basically meaningless) lonely rest.
    A literal interpretation of this would suggests that the percussionist is to play on beat 3, "hold" for the fermata/pause, and then rest for a beat before the end (this is accentuated by the rallentando), — but this just seems absurd.

For either of these options, I think the intended meaning is probably clear, but they both seem like sloppy notation.

What is the best engraving practice for this type of scenario?
Is one of these option is preferable? or is there another way of notating this?

  • 2
    Well, for starters, I don't recall ever seeing the "bordered" cross note you have in your first example. The "rounded" cross note head exists and is common, so I'd use that. Now, the point is that you probably don't want a roll there, right? So I wouldn't be too worried about the rest after that: using a full half there could lead to confusion ("did he forgot to put the cuts for the roll?"). – musicamante Mar 30 at 20:54
  • I wanted to mention the circled cross notehead, since I'm pretty certain I've seen it before, but I couldn't find any examples of it being used, except for open hi-hats on a drum kit part. Regardless, I think the meaning will be clear for either symbol. – Edward Mar 31 at 15:55

The U.S. Army band (see the "Percussion Clinic" download) indicates tambourine to be given with standard noteheads, which eliminates the problem described.

Here is the one notation example that specifically includes a half-note:

Tambourine "Shake roll" example with half-note

The Percussion II part for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker also uses standard note heads for the tambourine. The below image is "Trépak", the final four measures.

Nutcracker: Trépak, Percussion II (tambourine), final four measures

(SOURCE: IMSLP, page 24 of the PDF)

  • 2
    I think this is the most obvious solution, but where does that leave any other instruments which "should" use a cross notehead and might need a half note? – Edward Mar 30 at 19:14
  • @Edward Good question -- and a quick search suggests it hasn't yet been asked. – Aaron Mar 30 at 19:23
  • Playing a roll for the duration of a half-note isn't exactly the same as playing a single note for the duration of a half-note. Also, in my score, if I needed a percussion roll of greater duration than a beat, I think I'd used consecutive rolled quarter-notes. – Elements in Space Apr 2 at 17:25
  • @ElementsinSpace My intention was only to show that standard note heads, including half-notes, can be used for tambourine. The fact that the examples are rolls is just incidental. – Aaron Apr 2 at 17:28

The fermata you use means that the note value is actually more than its usual value/length. So some of the written parts are ambiguous.

It's established that most percussion has a very short sustain value. Cymbals are obviously the odd ones out, and most people understand that their sustain is much longer. But I think most writers are more concentrated on when the sound starts as oppose to when it finishes. So the strike is what is embodied in the notation. For example, a kick drum may have a crotchet showing when it gets its beat, but it'll never be sounding at the end of that crotchet, unlike a piano played crotchet. Pretty pointless writing a quaver followed by a quave rest, as we all know that's actually what will happen anyway.

So in reality it's only sustainable sounds, like cymbals or tambourines, that need more careful notation. So careful attention needs to be afforded to the notation there. As there actually is a start and end to their sounding.


In most of the charts I've seen, cymbal durations using half or whole notes are written using a diamond shaped note head instead of an x shaped head.

For drumset notation this can cause a little confusion, as some copyists will use the x shape for a ride cymbal and a diamond shape for a crash, but this is easily solved by writing the crash on a ledger line and including a notation key. But since your chart is for tambourine, the diamond shaped head seems to me to be the simplest solution.

  • Yeah okay, but what is a single long note on a tambourine or similar? It'll sound the same as a short note followed by a rest, won't it? – Elements in Space Apr 1 at 6:32
  • Not exactly. When the rest arrives a percussionist may need to dampen the instrument, but he/she won't if it's written as a long note. – Tom Serb Apr 1 at 17:22
  • I don't think you can really dampen a tambourine. – Elements in Space Apr 2 at 8:59
  • Changing the angle of a tambourine controls the decay of the sound envelope. A percussionist seeing a long single note will hold the hoop vertically, which allow the "jingle" to continue for a little bit. Holding the hoop at 45º cuts off the jingle vibrations. Granted, it's not like dampening a tympani head, but percussionists have more control over duration than you might think. – Tom Serb Apr 2 at 13:20

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