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Jazz Notation – Chords and Drums

This post and its companion, Jazz Notation – the Default, present the material from my talk on January 11, 2014, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas.

In my previous post on jazz notation, I discussed some of the ways that understanding the band’s default performance practice can help you to write cleaner, more effective notation. Here are a few more tips for producing scores that are easily readable and will get you the performance you want.

One thing that people seem to be vocal and passionate about is how to write chord symbols. There are many ways to write them, but the important thing is to be clear. Of course, clarity also seems to be the most common justification that people give for putting way too many characters in their chord symbols.

Let’s look at a few examples and see what is clear and what is not. I will start by saying that most of the defaults in our notation software are not ideal. Regardless of which spelling system you use, make sure the fonts match and the extension size is readable.

I like to use the shorthand. I hear someone saying, “Oh, but not everyone knows what it means”. Really? I have used them for years and never had an issue in Australia, Europe, or the States. If someone is unsure what they mean, they will ask, and then they will know. The other reason I like them is that they are compact. If you are going to use Cmaj7, you are taking up a lot of space. Try to fit four chords to a bar like that.

This is of particular interest to me, being both a drummer and an arranger. There are many styles of drum part. I have seen and played hundreds of terrible drum charts. Drum parts are unlike any other in the band. The player must interpret up to 100% of the part, as they are just guides. In order to write a good part, you need to know not only what information to give the drummer, but also understand how they will interpret and use that information.

  • Slashes = Time. Most people write the word ‘time’ or write some sort of pattern. I have started writing just the slashes and have never had a drummer just start to solo or ask what to do. A tip; don‚Äôt keep repeating slashes if there is no change, use 1 bar repeats and number the end of the phrase.
    Drums- Slash and 1 bar rptAnother way of doing this was to write ‘Play 8,’ etc., without printing the individual measures. The problem I have with this is that if the drummer wishes to write in something, perhaps a cue that is added or one the writer did not think he needed, he does not have the bars to do it in.
  • Ensemble notation above. Set up the figures and then incorporate that into the time. Some people label the notes with ‘Ens,’ but it is pretty obvious what it is. If there is no description it is the full band or the most important part. If it is just saxes or trombones, it is good to mark it as such as the set up will not need to be as big.
  • Ensemble below is used for lower or other hits, most commonly trombone parts or bass pushes. These tend to get less priority. So the important stuff goes above, and secondary stuff goes below. It is written on the bass drum line; it does not mean that the drummer will play the bass drum, but of course he may.
    Drums- Ens Notation
  • Rhythmic notation means to focus on the rhythm, at the expense of the time.
    Drums- Rhythmic

All jazz drummers know what a swing pattern is and what to do with brushes. There are default patterns, so unless you need something else, say it is a modern chart with a non standard beat, slashes do the trick.

In a normal swing chart the drummer will always play beats 2 and 4 on the high hat and most will

Drums- Slashes equal
Unless you say otherwise, it will be assumed to be ‘in 4.’ If you want it ‘in 2,’ just mark that. Alternatively you can put the bass pattern in the part under the slashes.
Drums in 2

One thing I see some arrangers do is to decide what parts of a figure the drummer needs to hit, and thus see. I think a good drummer knows (and a student should learn) what parts of a line to hit or set up, so it is best to give them the whole line. The problem that can happen if you don’t give them the whole line is that they will fill or set up what they see and potentially trample over the band.
Drums complete line

There are differing views on what lines should be used for the various pieces of the drum kit. Here are my preferences. If you use these, you will not get questions and nothing should need a label.
Drum- MapShould you have to write an actual part, remember that stems for the hands go up and feet go down.
Drums - Layers

And finally, here is a drum part from one of my pieces.


To feather the bass drum means to play it softly on each beat. This gives a subtle point to the sound of acoustic bass.

Posted in: Jazz


  1. Yeah, I always write C(triangle)7 for Maj7. No one has ever asked what that meant. I learned from Dan Haerle so if it’s good enough for him, no one in this universe should NOT know the abreaviated chord symbols. In fact if they don’t I wonder if they actually gig! Nice post!
    Steve Steele

  2. I always did my drum parts with hands – stems up and feet – stems down. The drummer in my band, who is an arranger and educator himself advised me that the parts should be all stems up. He showed me several examples in drum publications to support that. So, I started writing with all stems up. The result is a part that is much easier to read.

  3. Really great blog! Thank you for sharing your expretise. Looking forward for new posts!

  4. i have a big band drum chart.i the middle of the song,the drum part reads’timer’ with repeat signs for the next 5 measures.what does the word timer mean?how does the drummer play that?thanks for your help bernie.please send me an e=mail reply

  5. Great article! Your drum notation looks like the PAS convention. The other main one I’ve learned is the Berklee map – slightly different and specs the hats in the top space. This is the one they teach in the Berklee arranging courses. Here’s a link to that for convenience:

    Really great blog! I’m looking forward to your Jim Thatcher part II

    • Hi Andy. Thanks for the link to the PDF. It is nearly identical to my ideas apart from where they have the toms and the HH pedal. I also like the way they describe the ensemble notation and the rhythmic. I have read the PAS stuff, a little confusing, and instead of committing to a system, they offer options. Plus they also talk about using graphic symbols for sticks and bells etc, that is just silly if you ask me. It is something that has come about in recent years thanks to the ease in notation programs, and something that will always need clarification. I find all of those percussive glyphs quite entertaining, but pointless. How is the word Marimba surrounded by a marimba outline any easier or clearer than just the word Marimba? And don’t get me started on the ones for the mallets…..

      My video for Thatcher part 2 is almost ready and the write up is halfway, but i have a ton of other work that I have to get out of the way before I finish it.

      • Just looking now, that Jerry Gates document might be a little old now, as the new Berklee standard drum map has Hi-hat pedal marked as an x-notehead in the space below the staff (treble clef D), as you have it in yours. His doc here has it written at second space (A). Sorry about that.

      • “Plus they also talk about using graphic symbols for sticks and bells etc, that is just silly if you ask me. It is something that has come about in recent years thanks to the ease in notation programs,”

        Actually, it long predates the common use of notation software. The PAS has been promoting a standardized set of percussion instrument symbols since the 1970s, if not earlier (the symbols are discussed at some length in David Cope’s book New Music Notations, which was published in 1976). The symbols seem to have some currency in classical scores, although I’ve never seen them in big band writing.

        • Hi, thanks for pointing this out. I will look at revising my statement. However my general feeling that the graphics and symbols are pointless stands. In fact if they have been around that long and never been widely taken up, proves my point.

    • Andy, is the drum set pdf link you`ve specified an excerpt from a larger book or course? Would it be possible to get a copy of it? Thanks a lot!

      • It’s from the Berklee arranging Syllabus. This is an older version by Jerry Gates (I’m currently taking his strings and woodwinds course – fantastic). A guy who is really on top of this and delivers a wealth of info is Tom Rudolph, who teaches Arranging for Rhythm Section with Berklee online. It’s well worth popping by there if you have a yen for getting those maps and notation up and firing – Tom has authored several books on the subjects. Otherwise if you Google “Berklee Drum Map” you should get some interesting results, I’m sure.

  6. Thanks for the article, and as a drummer who sight-reads quite a bit, this is basically spot-on. There’s also this article by Norman Weinberg regarding drum set notation (for further notation of what you started showing).

  7. […] post and its companion, Jazz Notation – Drums and Chords, present the material from my talk on January 11, 2014, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in […]


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