Thursday, April 9, 2009

Musical Notation

A basic understanding of musical notation is really useful for learning percussion. It is also really handy for understanding salsa timing better... even as a dancer.

Time Signatures

A time signature dictates the beat throughout a staff (a musical score). Salsa is a 4/4 signature, which means that there are four evenly spaced beats per bar (one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four).

Waltz (which has a "one-two-three, one-two-three" feel) is known as having a 3/4 time signature, because it has three evenly spaced beats per bar.

Reggae is an interesting one. In Reggae, the timing is 4/4, but the notes are only played on the one-two-three. The fourth beat per bar is normally a rest, which gives a feel of "swing". It is still 4/4 timing though.

There is plenty more to learn about time signatures if you are interested. Here is a really good starting point.


The clef above indicates that this music is for percussion. There are other cleffs, such as melody and bass, but these are not important to us when focussing on percussion. What this does indicate, however, is that you don't have to worry about the pitch (or the duration) of the notes within the musical score (if you are a pianist on the other hand... you do have to worry).


A bar is just a grouping of notes within a piece of music, and the number of notes within the bar maps directly to the time signature. For a 3/4 time signature, there will be three notes per bar, evenly spaced. Each full note's duration will be a quarter of a bar.


There are two things to be concerned with regarding notes. The first thing is pitch (i.e. is this a C, a D, an F#, ...). Luckily, for percussion, we are not too worried. The next thing to worry about is the duration of the note. Again, luckily we are not too worried about this either (we can't really controll how long a drum strike or clave strike lasts for really). However, the notation for notes within a bar is useful for telling us how long a note should last for... which gives us a clearer idea of when the next note in the bar is to be played.

The above note (using my example) is a crotchet. This represents a quarter of a bar. So, for 4/4 timing, four evenly spaced crotchets represents the four basic beats of a salsa bar.

The note above is a quaver. It represents a note that lasts half as long as a crotchet, or in the case of 4/4 timing, an eight of a bar. Why would this be important to us as percussionists? Well, it isn't really, but it does help us keep our timing (two quavers in a row should take the same time to play as one crotchet).


Rests indicate that no note is to be played. This is useful, as it keeps one nicely in time. In merengue, for example, a 2/4 signature is used. In this case, one bar would consist of a crotchet, then a rest, then a crotchet, then a rest.

The rest above is a crotchet rest. It indicates a 1 beat rest in a 4/4 bar (i.e. the same duration as a crotchet note).

The rest above indicates a quaver rest. It indicates a 1/2 beat rest in a 4/4 bar (i..e the same duration at a quaver note).

Armed with the above information, you should have enough knowledge to pick up the timing of most percussion transcripts (describing congas, the cowbell, the clave, etc). Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. what is the time signature in the salsa