G clef (usually treble), F clef (usually bass) and very movable C clef (alto/tenor) are all very definable, as are the dots contained within.

Look at untuned percussion music, though, and there's only slight, if any standardisation. Often there's not even a legend at the top telling what each dot represents. Reading a lot of it requires intuition and some guesswork.

Understanding that there are many different untuned percussion instruments that would all require a special place and/or symbol, but also understanding that most 'standard' drumkits are basically five shell and hi-hat plus two cymbals (others are personal choice, but are options for the particular player, so don't count), why is it no standardisation is available? Or is there and I've missed it? Or is it like betamax and vhs, and we're still waiting for a winner?

  • I don't think it's guesswork to a trained percussionist. There are codes and rules to the notation. Did you read thru my favorite site (Dolmetsch online) to see what's mentioned there? Jan 4, 2019 at 13:14
  • 2
    @CarlWitthoft - yes there are codes and rules. Sadly, they don't all follow the same set of codes and rules. I see drum parts that vary quite a bit as to which 'notehead' means which drum or cymbal, or hi-hat. That's my concern. Not a lot of uniformity, and for no good purpose.
    – Tim
    Jan 4, 2019 at 15:20
  • That's true, Tim. I've seen somewhat different notation styles in different books but they all had a key at the beginning. Nowadays it is a little bit better with software tools (I use MuseScore) as they follow somewhat closely the notation listed in the answer below. Feb 5, 2019 at 10:24

1 Answer 1


Check out Norman Weinberg’s Guide to Standardized Drumset Notation. http://www.normanweinberg.com/uploads/8/1/6/4/81640608/940506pn_guildines_for_drumset.pdf Drum notation example 1

Weinberg's guide is used as a starting point for other publishers, like MIT's Audio Graffiti drum notation guide: Drumset example legend 2

Typically in the multi percussion literature there is a legend beside the clef, as in Xenakis' Rebonds: enter image description here

Contemporary multipercussion works include both a legend for the notation and a diagram for optimal instrument placement, as in Campbell's Engine Room: enter image description here

  • This seems the option that figures most. personally, writing stuff out, I prefer the snare on the middle line, as it can then be the only drum on a line, putting the three (standard) toms on top, second and third spaces, easy to read. Having said that, even non-standard dots aren't too bad to read, as intuition gives good clues (usually!), It's not too difficult to guess what's meant, but since most other music stuff is standardised, why not drums?
    – Tim
    Feb 5, 2019 at 10:31
  • The reason is because Gregorian chant never used drums. Mar 30, 2020 at 18:48
  • Oh, the drums are standardized. Just... xkcd.com/927 Dec 21, 2021 at 10:12

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.