Ping (zestyping) wrote,

Tick notation.

Note: All of my stuff related to drumming class is now at my African drumming page.

I think i've invented a new drum notation. (Somehow i get the feeling that as soon as i post this, you're all going to tell me this has been invented before... but i'll indulge anyway, because i like ideas.) I guess i'll call it "tick notation" because i can't think of a better name right now. I hope you like ideas too!

Here's a bit of background. I've been learning West African drumming (with C. K. Ladzekpo — sometimes it feels like half the co-ops are in that class). But i'm having trouble keeping up. He teaches us new drumming patterns pretty fast, and it's difficult for me to pick them up just from watching and listening to him demonstrate them. Sometimes we spend enough time breaking down a particular pattern that i can be pretty sure i've heard it right; sometimes we don't. Sometimes i think i have it but i don't remember it later — but i don't have a good way to write down what i heard. Standard musical notation is tedious to write, and much too slow to keep up. So i made up a new notation that lets you write down drumming patterns almost as fast as you can hear them, and has a few other advantages too.

I'll give you an example. At the beginning of the class, C. K. taught us a bell pattern based on a 12-beat loop. He taught it to us like this:

  • The pattern is made of four triplets, which you can count "1 ah ah 2 ah ah 3 ah ah 4 ah ah".
  • In the first triplet, clap on the first and last beat: clap pause clap.
  • In the second triplet, clap on the two non-accented beats: pause clap clap.
  • In the third triplet, clap on the second beat only: pause clap pause.
  • The fourth triplet is just like the first: clap pause clap.
  • Put it all together, stomping on the four accented beats to keep in sync: clap pause clap stomp clap clap stomp clap pause clap pause clap. Keep it looping.
  • When you play it on the bells, strike the low bell for the first note, and the high bell for all the rest.
  • To recite the rhythm aloud, use the syllable "tin" for the low bell and "go" for the high bell. Thus: "tin (pause) go (stomp) go go (stomp) go (pause) go (pause) go".

Here it is in tick notation.

A tick above the line is the high bell; a tick below the line is the low bell. The light (barely visible) vertical lines show the grouping into four triplets: if you look at each grouping, you see the triplets as C. K. taught them (first "tin (pause) go", then "(pause) go go", and so on). Because of the way we were taught, i visualized this rhythm always as four triplets. There was no particular rhyme or reason to it for me; it was just four triplets that we had to memorize and play back.

But a lot of these patterns are easier to understand if you can see the structure in them. One of the things C. K. wants us to do is to count out other subdivisions of the 12 beats while clapping this rhythm. Counting "1, 2, 3, 4" is no problem, since i learned it as four triplets. But he also wants us to count six, which i found fiendishly hard.

To explain how to do that, C. K. pointed out that when you count to 6, counts 1, 2, and 3 line up with the first three claps. And counts 4, 5, and 6 alternate with the last four claps. In fact, the bell pattern can be defined as two alternating rhythms: clap on odd counts for the first half and then clap on even counts for the second half! This was quite a surprise to me, because it had never occurred to me to look at it this way.

Here it is in tick notation again, with the bell pattern on top and the 6 counts on the bottom.

When it's laid out graphically like this, the pattern is visually apparent. (Now that you've seen it like this, i bet you can see the same pattern in the first diagram, too.) For comparison, here's how the above looks in standard musical notation. There's all this extra stuff (clef, staff lines, stems, tails) — so much distracting ink that your eye has to wade through to get to the rhythmic pattern:

Thinking about rhythms is kind of like looking at a Necker cube. You're playing the same rhythm the whole time, but it can sound completely different depending on what accents and groupings you have in your head. You can play the bell pattern while counting 4 or counting 6 silently in your head, and it sounds exactly the same to anyone listening, but playing it feels totally different.

Being able to "flip the Necker cube" in an aural sense seems like an important ability, since C. K. expects us to play multiple rhythms at the same time and that means i have to be able to see them from multiple perspectives at once. I think tick notation is really good for that, because standard musical notation forces you to impose a predefined grouping on the notes (for example, the same rhythm can be written in 6/8 or 3/4 and look totally different), whereas tick notation lets readers choose their own visual grouping or switch between groupings.

One of our earlier exercises was to play the 4-count beat with the left hand while playing the bell pattern with the right hand. It's a lot easier to play multiple rhythms together if, instead of trying to play two rhythms in parallel, you learn the composite rhythm. So C. K. named each sound with a syllable: "ka" for the right hand, "tu" for the left hand, and "pla" for both hands. Then you can recite the entire rhythm for both hands: "pla (pause) ka tu ka ka tu ka (pause) pla (pause) ka".

In tick notation, you can just read off the syllables, because each syllable corresponds to a distinct visual shape:

Putting it all together in a picture makes it much easier for me to see the relationships between the two parallel rhythms, the composite rhythm, and the spoken syllables. Here's that same thing in standard musical notation again:

Now C. K. wants us to play eight subdivisions while playing the bell pattern. This is virtually impossible unless you learn the composite rhythm. He uses "ta" for just the left hand alone and "tu" for the left hand with a stomp. (We still have to keep stomping 4 beats all the time to stay in sync.) For this, he brought a blackboard into class and wrote on it: "Pla Ta Ka Tu Ka Ta Ka Tu Ka Ta Pla Ta Ka". I was confused.

Then i came home and wrote it out like this:

So it's just like the 4-beat pattern, with "ta" inserted at four places. And you can tell right away from the picture that the same hand never plays alone twice in a row: you hit with both hands together, then you alternate hands for a while, then both together again on 4. This is really hard to see if you're trying to watch someone play.

One last example. One of the songs we're learning to play is Takada, which incorporates the twelve-beat bell pattern. (The musical score is on the third page of this PDF file.) In tick notation, three of the parts look like this:

The top line, "gankogui", is the bell. The middle line, "axatse", is the shaker, which has a funky seven-beat rhythm: the first half is divided into three, and the second half is divided into four. The bottom line, "sogo", is one of the backup drums. For drum lines, i'm adopting the convention that the strong hand is a tick on top and the weak hand is a tick on the bottom. I imagine you could put any kind of symbol over or below the line in this notation, to indicate different kinds of drum sounds; so for drums like the sogo played with two sticks, a strike is a tick and a press is a dot. I find it pretty easy to play a rhythm directly from this notation, and i also like how correspondences between the parts are made visible: you can see that if i played the sogo, my right hand would match the shaker exactly, which i think is pretty neat.

In short, i like tick notation because (a) it's much faster to write than standard musical notation, (b) it's easier to see different groupings of the same rhythm, (c) different drum sounds are more visually distinct, (d) you can read off the composite rhythm more easily, and (e) it's easier to see how different parts align with each other. Also, (f) for drumming, the length of a note is extraneous information that shouldn't be there; standard musical notation forces you to invent fictional lengths (and pitches), and tick notation doesn't.

If it happens that anyone reading this post is in the class — here are a couple of PDF files with everything i've notated so far: rhythmic framework (bell pattern with 2, 4, 3, 6, and 8 subdivisions) and Takada (all the parts, as well as i can remember them). I hope you find them helpful.

(I did the drawings in OmniGraffle and the musical scores with Noteflight — thanks to the wonderful people to made them.)


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