"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.

 

Confused?

 

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!

 

 

3 comments

  • Johnny Hume
    Johnny Hume Ky. USA
    Exactly!! I’ve been using these ever since I found them on my Ensemble software. They are perfect for all the reasons you mentioned. This should be discussed in PB drumming forums all over the world.

    Exactly!! I’ve been using these ever since I found them on my Ensemble software. They are perfect for all the reasons you mentioned.
    This should be discussed in PB drumming forums all over the world.

  • Pipe Band Drummer
    Pipe Band Drummer
    Thanks for helping to spread the word Johnny! I think it is a simple yet important concept that will help a lot of people.

    Thanks for helping to spread the word Johnny! I think it is a simple yet important concept that will help a lot of people.

  • Megan MacLeod
    Megan MacLeod Saskatchewan, Canada
    I think it's an interesting idea, but would would need to involve a discussion along the lines of "Okay, multi-instrumentalists and otherwise: this means to tap, not a sharp articulation change as in other music, just as if you play a Scottish ratamacue, and just call it a ratamacue outside of pipe band, you'll face ridicule and confusion". I played around with this and it's fascinating to me that seeing the staccato symbol makes me want to adjust the type of stroke I'm playing, into more of a down stroke motion, because to my brain that's what's more...abrupt? I think that's the word I'd choose. I acknowledge fully that other people wouldn't do that, that's just a product of my classical crossover training. I think my subconscious thought process is if they bother to put that articulation there, they want it to be REALLY short. I also think it could be a great learning tool- more like training wheels, than something we would need to standardize. Once you become used to feeling what, say, a March phrase would sound and feel like, you wouldn't necessarily need to see the markings as a cue anymore, especially if you commit it to memory. Just as in your example, when I teach this concept it's all about context of the phrase. I have a degree in music also and teach all sorts of band students, and it doesn't matter which instruments or what kinds of music they play, they think accent= loud and forte means super loud, or for drummers- hard/strain. But we know that it's more about stylistic awareness and nuance. I would argue, alongside staccato, that knowledge of the "other volumes" i.e. mp, mf, etc. would be super helpful also. I know a lot of PB students learn the crescendo and less often the decrescendo, but if they're asking "which ones are accents and which ones are taps?", I would normally reply "Well, they all are accents, but not all accents have to be super loud and played at the same volume, the middle one is more mp and the last is mf". For the students that know, dynamic markings are helpful to practice to phrases, because it's also about where that volume is leading to. If they don't have a clue about dynamics, maybe I'd start them thinking about the phrases sooner rather than later, like a tenor drummer would- strong, weak, medium, weak. Sorry for the wall of text, I just live for this stuff and I'm excited because I feel like somebody else understands my experience! Cheers!

    I think it's an interesting idea, but would would need to involve a discussion along the lines of "Okay, multi-instrumentalists and otherwise: this means to tap, not a sharp articulation change as in other music, just as if you play a Scottish ratamacue, and just call it a ratamacue outside of pipe band, you'll face ridicule and confusion". I played around with this and it's fascinating to me that seeing the staccato symbol makes me want to adjust the type of stroke I'm playing, into more of a down stroke motion, because to my brain that's what's more...abrupt? I think that's the word I'd choose. I acknowledge fully that other people wouldn't do that, that's just a product of my classical crossover training. I think my subconscious thought process is if they bother to put that articulation there, they want it to be REALLY short.

    I also think it could be a great learning tool- more like training wheels, than something we would need to standardize. Once you become used to feeling what, say, a March phrase would sound and feel like, you wouldn't necessarily need to see the markings as a cue anymore, especially if you commit it to memory. Just as in your example, when I teach this concept it's all about context of the phrase. I have a degree in music also and teach all sorts of band students, and it doesn't matter which instruments or what kinds of music they play, they think accent= loud and forte means super loud, or for drummers- hard/strain. But we know that it's more about stylistic awareness and nuance. I would argue, alongside staccato, that knowledge of the "other volumes" i.e. mp, mf, etc. would be super helpful also. I know a lot of PB students learn the crescendo and less often the decrescendo, but if they're asking "which ones are accents and which ones are taps?", I would normally reply "Well, they all are accents, but not all accents have to be super loud and played at the same volume, the middle one is more mp and the last is mf". For the students that know, dynamic markings are helpful to practice to phrases, because it's also about where that volume is leading to. If they don't have a clue about dynamics, maybe I'd start them thinking about the phrases sooner rather than later, like a tenor drummer would- strong, weak, medium, weak.

    Sorry for the wall of text, I just live for this stuff and I'm excited because I feel like somebody else understands my experience!

    Cheers!

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