Friday, 16 January 2015

Strikes though stems, aka roll notation to us snare drummers

This great article explains the historical and musical theory behind strikes through stems on musical notes http://jennifercluff.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/slashes-through-note-stems.html.

To start let me just say this piece of research has changed my understanding of pipe band snare drumming notation and will lead to changes in Drum Score Editors treatment of rolls.

I was taught that the strike through the stem indicates a roll movement and the number of strikes depends on the note value, i.e. for a crotchet (a quarter note to everybody except us) it’s three strikes through the stem and for notes of lesser duration it’s two strikes, so that’s what Drum Score Editor does. Well looks like I was taught right (in most cases) but for the wrong reasons! I understood that the number of strikes doesn’t define the number of buzzes, that’s down to interpretation and to a certain extent that’s true, however there is a musical theory that it’s grounded in which indirectly does indicate the number of buzzes in a roll.

According to the above article, the number of strikes indicate the subdivisions of that note. So if we took a crotchet in 4/4 time with only two strikes through it - that denotes 4 semi-quavers, in pipe band drumming terms does that mean we interpret that as 4 buzzes of the stick? If we assume the next note in the series to be a tap, this would equate to a 9 stroke roll. Stretching a 9 stroke roll over 2 paces in a march is pretty loose! So what if we put 3 strikes through the stem of the same crotchet? That subdivides to 8 demi-semiquavers, 8 buzzes? Surely not. Well you could but at a march tempo in 4/4 time 8 buzzes and a tap to make a 2 pace roll is pretty crammed. So if 8 buzzes is too many and 4 is too few, then 6 must be the right answer.

And it is, but how does that work with the rules as we now know them? The 2 pace roll, is indeed a 13 stroke roll, 6 buzzes and the tap on the beat, which leaves the question how do you determine the number of strikes to put through the stem of the note? The answer is in the irregular group we call the triplet, which features highly in pipe band drumming. When you break down the 2 pace roll into two triplets and a tap, where each note in the triplet is a buzz you get 6 buzzes and a tap - exactly how we defined a 2 pace roll above. All of a sudden the crotchet with 2 strikes through the stem makes sense, if you think of a triplet being 3 in the time of 2 - the definition of a triplet - with two triplets that's 4 regular notes. With 4 regular notes the answer must be 2 strikes through the stem of the crotchet in march time. 

The illustration below shows that breakdown of the 2 pace roll into 2 irregular groups of 3 notes in the time of 2 (triplets), showing why if this is shortened to a crotchet roll, there must be 2 strikes through the stem. Incidentally the reason I’m showing only a single strike through the stem of each pulse is the breakdown of a buzz is a pressed double, which, given that’s 2 notes, we need to show one subdivision of each semi-quaver buzz.
Today Drum Score Editor uses a simple logic that says crotchet and greater is 3 strikes, which we now know is wrong. In the sample below, there should be 2 strikes through the stem of the first crotchet.

So does this logic hold true across other time signatures and tempos? Well there’s a 3rd factor too. I’ve seen some leading drummers look to create a different feel by sometimes stretching rolls or cramming an extra buzz in for effect. Consider the opening 3 pace rolls where convention has these as starting and finishing on the same hand, 4 triplets of buzzing and a tap. Some leading drummers want a fuller sound and cram an extra buzz in so the corps ends each roll on the opposite hand that they started it on.

Here’s how time signatures impact this too. Let’s take 2/2 time, a reel. A 2 pace roll in reel time is typically played exactly the same as in a march, 2 triplet buzzes and a tap. In a 4/4 march the beat note is a crotchet (which is what the lower 4 means in the time signature), in a 2/2 (or cut common time as it’s often called) the beat note is a minim. So when that gets subdivided it’s still getting broken down to 2 irregular groups of 3 buzzes in the time of 2 notes, i.e. 4 notes, and we know that this means 2 strikes through the stem, on a minim, in 2/2 time to achieve a 2 pace roll. This means we can’t use a simple rule that says it’s 2 strikes through a crotchet and 3 on a minim - even in a 4/4 march a 3 pace roll would be written as a minim and break down into 4 triplets, each worth 2 regular notes, meaning subdividing into 8 notes, so that would be 3 strikes through the stem of the minim. So in the reel a minim with 2 strikes is 2 pace roll, and in a march it’s a 3 pace roll. 

The example below shows Drum Score Editor correctly treating the 2 pace roll in a reel.

The example below shows it incorrectly treating a 7 stroke roll in reel time, due to the current incorrect logic in deciding number of strikes through the stem.

Now I know there will either be outraged purists or strong opinions here, especially about that the extra buzz filling the sound in 3 pace rolls for example. This brings me naturally to a mantra I hold true throughout writing Drum Score Editor and scores for people, and that is that musical notation is a language, and a language develops over time and is used differently by different groups - remember when calling something wicked meant it wasn’t a good thing? There are many conventions and Drum Score Editor needs to balance making musical assumptions to make it more efficient for an author or scribe to articulate themselves and flexibility to allow different conventions to apply.

So in my next update to Drum Score Editor, I will correct the logic to consider the time signature when deciding how many strikes a note stem has for a roll, but also eventually implement some kind of override, to allow for when the author wants to do something funky, or I’ve got my logic wrong and a workaround is needed. 

However I do see opportunity in the modern interpretation of just putting a single strike through a stem to declare a roll making for a much cleaner and easier to read score where the number of buzzes is down to interpretation of context by the leading drummer …. OK so I’m maybe in a minority there but the language must evolve and that option exists today in Drum Score Editor!