"Is this an Accent or a Tap?": Using 300 year old Italian Symbols to Improve Our Notation

"Is this an accent or a tap?"


If you are a lead drummer you have answered this question hundreds of times. If you are a corps drummer you have asked this question hundreds of times. These questions are asked whenever drummers learn what has always been known as an "accented roll sequence".


For those unfamiliar with accents, they are a musical symbol that, when placed above a note, indicate an added emphasis or stress. The accent symbol looks like a "greater than" sign (>).


An accented roll sequence is a series of rolls strung together for musical effect. They contain a mix of taps, accents and buzz strokes. Accented rolls provide an excellent opportunity for both syncopation (off beats) and dynamics (changes in volume). Even though accented rolls are common in each of the five pipe band styles, they are found in their longest and most complex forms in the strathspey style. The example below is taken from a grade 3 level strathspey. Note the use of accents to define the rolls that start with a tap.



If I showed this to my drum corps, there would be an immediate chorus of "which accents are accents and which ones are taps?" And, the drum corps would be right to ask me! I would have to go through every accent, note by note, and explain which ones I wanted played as accents and which ones were only quiet taps.

Most experienced drummers would look at the roll passage above and be able to get most of it. Experience would allow a drummer to catch the crescendo at the beginning of the roll sequence and, as it is impossible to crescendo when already playing at full volume, assume that the second "accent" in the passage should be played as a quiet tap. An experienced drummer would also know that volume shouldn't peak too early in a long crescendo roll. Therefore, when executing these rolls they would hold their volume back until the final two accents. So, out of nine accents in the entire sequence, only three are actually played as accents.




A lot of new or younger drummers certainly are!


That is why, as a drumming community, we need to solve this issue. We need a way of notating taps that is different from how we notate accents.


May I have a long, complex, strathspey-type drum roll please!?


Introducing: The Staccato!!!


The staccato symbol is borrowed from classical music. Staccato is Italian for "detached" and it has been used to indicate notes of a slightly shortened duration since the 1600s. The symbol for staccato is a small dot placed above the note head. Assigning the staccato symbol to represent a quiet tap in a pipe band drum score makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, the staccato is physically smaller than the accent symbol. This makes it easy to remember that the sound it represents is also smaller than the sound produced by an accented note. Secondly, the staccato has been used to represent a detached note for hundreds of years. A "tap" is just that--a single note detached from the buzz strokes that provides rhythmic definition in a roll sequence.

The following example shows two identical roll sequences: one using "accent-only" notation and one using staccato. From looking at the second example it is clear which accents are meant to stand out. The first "accent-only" example is sure to elicit many questions. The second example gives you the answers you need!


It is easy to replace accents with staccato symbols in your handwritten scores. Where the use of staccato becomes more difficult is when using software notation programs. Not all pipe band drumming-specific notation software contains the options to use staccato. However, the program that I currently use, Ensemble, does provide this functionality. Other software programs that allow the use of staccato are: Sibelius, Finale, Musescore, Noteflight, and Flat.

Pipe band drumming is a relatively young artform and our notation is even younger. The more steps we can take to improve it, the less confusing it will be for everyone. Have fun adding staccato into your drum scores and enjoy all the questions about accents that you no longer hear! Until next time, happy drumming!