I’m writing a passage for a 5-line percussion staff that includes both a bass drum and clash cymbals. I know to write each instrument in its own voice, and this is what I have currently [written in Sibelius]:

enter image description here

As you can see, the bass drum is written in the 1st voice (dark blue) up to Bar 82, as it’s the only instrument in the staff until that point. Then Bar 82 introduces the clash cymbals, so I switch the bass drum to the 2nd voice (dark green) and the cymbals to the 1st voice. This continues on until the end of the passage with the cymbals, at which point I put the bass drum back in the 1st voice.

So here’s my question, in two parts:

A) When you have a staff with two (or more) instruments on it, does each instrument stay in its own voice (1st, 2nd, 3rd, so on) throughout the entire piece, or can an instrument switch between voices depending on whether other instruments are present in the phrase/passage?

B) If you can switch voices, do you determine which instruments stay in which voice according the the phrase, or can you do it on a bar-by-bar basis? For instance, in the below pic, Bar 83 has no cymbals and only a bass drum, so I switched the bass drum back to the 1st voice for that bar, before switching back for Bar 84, which has cymbals again. Is this proper?

enter image description here

Please let me know if any of this is unclear. Thanks to anyone who replies.

  • 'Clash' - or 'crash' cymbal? Bass drum is generally written on the lowest space - the dot is more important than which way the stem points. Bar numbers with dots covering them aren't much use.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 6:16
  • Definitely clash cymbals; crash cymbals are more commonly seen in drum kits – see Wiki. Sorry ’bout the bar number visibility; they’re auto-generated by Sibelius and I can’t move them from behind the cymbal notes.
    – Walter
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 6:48
  • I thought you'd need two hand-held cymbals for that.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 7:10
  • Not sure I understand what you mean. Clash cymbals, mostly seen in orchestras, are two handheld cymbals the player hits or scrapes together. Crash cymbals are the mounted cymbals a drummer hits with drumsticks.
    – Walter
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 8:56
  • @Walter -- I think the confusion was that you wrote "a clash cymbal" and "the clash cymbal" instead of "clash cymbals" in your question.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 11:42

2 Answers 2


I have a copy of Behind the Bars by Elaine Gould. It was suggested to me by my composition professor for guidelines regarding music notation, and I have found it very helpful. At about 650 pgs, it is very thorough. The chapter on percussion notation makes it seem that if one player is reading the part, it is fine to stem in one voice when it is one instrument alone. But if two players are reading off the same part, it is important to give one instrument stems-up only and one stems-down only throughout the whole piece. Additionally, if one player is reading the part and playing two instruments at once, and both instruments have the same rhythm, they can be stemmed together. Hope this helps.

  • Thanks. I’ll wait and see whether anyone else adds their own reply, but so far this is the answer to beat.
    – Walter
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 6:12

For Drum notation there is no standard for which instrument goes on what line. Typically you include a key for the drummer. However, there are some best practices such as cymbals go somewhere up high and bass drum somewhere down low.

To make it easier for the performer to read it is best to keep each instrument consistent and on its own line (or space).

  • Thanks for your reply. However, my question isn’t about whether instruments should stick to their own lines (I know they should), but whether voice – whether stems point up or down, basically – matters.
    – Walter
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 19:53
  • @Walter Do you have more instruments than would allow to give each instrument its own voice?
    – b3ko
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 22:22
  • Nope, only the two (bass drum and clash cymbals). I’m just wondering whether they should be written so that each instrument’s stems should point the same direction – i.e., the bass drum points down whilst the cymbals point upwards – throughout the score, or if it’s okay to switch it around when just one instrument is being played in a measure or passage.
    – Walter
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 22:43
  • @Walter i think it would be easier to keep them consistent. anything to keep the drummer from getting confused the better.<insert drummer joke here>
    – b3ko
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 13:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.