Basic Theory to Get You Started

Before reading this theory section it may be helpful to watch's YouTube series "Music Theory for Pipe Band Drummers". This 13-part series (roughly 45 minutes in length) will give you an introduction to the basic theory knowledge you require as a pipe band drummer. To watch the videos please click here.

Before you begin to read music it is helpful to know a few things about the musical staff you see below.  Lead drummers are forever yelling out things like "third bar,  second part" or "remember the last note in bar three".  In order for a drum corps to communicate effectively, they must know the common musical terms that help them navigate through their drum scores.

In order to use "The Bare Bones" successfully, you must recognize and understand the basic music theory elements written below.  Reading a drum score is similar to reading a reference book.  To navigate a book effectively, you must understand the location and function of the table of contents, page numbers, introduction, chapters, footnotes, appendices etc. Once these terms are understood, it is much easier to find the information you are looking for. Here are the basics:

The Staff:  The horizontal line on which the music is written. Pipe band drumming is notated on a one line (monolinear) staff. Notes written above the line should be played with the right hand and notes written below the line should be played with the left.

Clef: These two vertical bars indicate "percussion clef". Percussion clef is used to indicate that there are no pitches assigned to the notes on the staff.

Bar:  Also known as a measure, a bar contains notes and rests. The number and value of notes in a bar can vary based on the time signature.

Time Signature:  The numerals at the beginning of a drum score that indicate the number of beats assigned to each bar (how many times you tap your foot). The time signature also determines how notes are grouped using beams.

Bar Line:  A small vertical line on the staff that indicates the beginning and end point of each bar.

Notes: A note indicates that a sound will be played and for how long.

Rests: A rest indicates that silence will occur and for how long.


Notes and Rests

Put in the simplest terms, notes represent sound and rests represent silence. Every note has a corresponding rest. Every type of note you will encounter in pipe band drumming is illustrated in the chart below. I have used the North American names with the names used in the UK in brackets.

It is important to note that eighth notes, sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes can appear either individually or in groups joined by beams. When these notes appear individually, their value is indicated by a "tail" or "flag". If an eight note is written individually it will have one flag; if that eighth note is joined by a beam to another note it will have one beam.


Often forgotten when learning pipe band drumming is the importance of rests (the silence between the notes). Traditionally, pipe band snare drummers only encounter rests in rare instances. Tenor drummers and bass drummers, however, are often confronted with rests. Whereas snare drummers are playing constantly, tenor and bass drummers duck in and out of the music complimenting musical elements played by the snare line or melody while providing harmonic support to the pipe corps. Tenor drummers, especially, have a tough task as they are asked to play notes with precision interspersed with flourishing. Therefore it is of utmost importance that tenor drummers learn to both recognize and interpret rests correctly.

You will notice that the name of each note and its corresponding rest are the same. A note indicates that sound will be played and its corresponding rest indicates that silence will occur for the same duration.


What is a Beam?

A beam is the horizontal line that joins individual notes into units of a beat making them much easier to read.  Without beams, a drum score would look like this:

No one would ever be able to read a score written this way, even though the note values are correct.  It is amazing the difference you see in the music once the beams are added.  The chaos in the score above now gives way to order and organization.

The Mystery of Note Groupings

The "Dot and Cut"

Syllables vs. Counting

Reels and Hornpipes