Ties vs Rests vs Dots

I received an email recently with the following question:

“I can't get my head around when the score should use the following: rests vs dotted notes vs ties; or even simpler, rests vs note length (less note length and more rests? or the other way around?). Obviously there is no relevant duration for drum notes in terms of sustaining the sound.

For example: dots VS ties VS rests. What combination of these should be used as best practice in order to specify time between hits? Eg. which is best practice for a snare or kick in 4/4 when notating the same thing: 1) a dotted quarter note; 2) a quarter note tied to an 8th note; or 3) a quarter note followed by an 8th note rest?

I understand it should be written for maximum readability - but I am confused because there are multiple ways to write the same thing, and I have no idea what the 'standard' is.”

This is a very interesting question (to me at least anyway!!) that relates directly to the differences between notating drum kit and pitched instruments such as piano or guitar. The ideas surrounding these differences are often cause for confusion.

First of all let's discuss the 'duration' issue and I'll use a piano as an example for explaining this fundamental difference. If you were given a bar of music made up of two crotchets and a minim, you play and hold the first two notes for 1 beat each and hold the last note for 2 beats. For a piano that would look like this:

A rhythm played on piano

If we had a similar piece of music written for snare drum we run into a problem. When you hit a snare drum you have very little control over how long the notes last, you hit it and it’s done. The way you would approach rhythm in this case is to think that a note value is saying how long to wait before hitting the next note. So a crotchet will mean play a note then don’t play anything else for 1 beat and a minim means wait two beats before playing another note. One way to simulate the rhythm of the snare drum version on a piano is to use rests. That would look something like this:

The snare drum rhythm written for piano

What the above rhythm shows is some very short notes. There is actually a form of notation for a technique that simulates the part above without needing all the extra rests. It's called Staccato. Staccato describes a note of shortened length and it means to play the note then stop it almost straight away, creating an almost percussive sound. To notate Staccato you add a dot above/below the note head. So a more accurate way to simulate a percussion part on a piano would be like this:

The snare drum rhythm written for piano using staccato

The main thing to remember when picking what form of notation to use is that it should be the most easy to follow option. When it comes to rhythm, most rules of notation are based on the fact that everything should fall into smaller groups wherever possible. These smaller groups are based on the bottom number in the Time Signature, so in the case of 4/4 everything should fall into groups of quarter notes. This means all quavers will be in groups of two or four and all sixteenth notes will be in groups of four. If you notate using a combination of rests, ties or dots that severely impairs the ability to see these groups in the notation, you have probably made a bad choice. There will be some rhythms where no option makes for comfortable notation, but in the vast majority of cases you should be able to create familiar groups.

Before knowing how to select the best, option you need to understand the basic uses of each of the forms of notation mentioned above. We will look at this now.

Ties are very rarely used in drum notation because of the 'duration' issues mentioned above. There are only three places I can think of off the top of my head where I would use this for of notation; when a cymbal is played then choked at a specific point, when a cymbal is 'rolled' on for a specific length or when a snare is buzzed/rolled for a certain length. Note that all of these examples involve hold a note on for a specific length. I'll go through some written examples of these below

Ties With Choked Crashes

In this example a crash will be struck on beat 1 then 'choked' on the second beat. A tie is used to indicate that on the second beat you just choke the crash, you don't strike it a second time then choke it. If rests were used here the crash wouldn't be held for the appropriate amount of time and there is no way to achieve this using dots. The notation for this is shown below:

A choked crash example

To play this part, hit a crash and kick drum on beat 1 then grab the crash on beat 2.

Ties With Rolled Cymbals

In the notation below a crash is held through beats 1,2 and 3 then struck again on the '+' after beat 3. The diagonal lines through the stem of the crash indicate that you 'roll' on the crash, so play a fast single stroke roll. If rests were used here the roll on the crash would have to be broken and again, there is no way to achieve this effect with dots. If the roll on the crash was held to the '+' after beat 2 a dotted crotchet could be used.

A rolled crash example

Ties With Buzz Rolls

A buzz roll is achieved by forcing the stick into the drum head whilst playing a double stroke roll. This creates a constant sound that can be held for as long as necessary. When people play drum rolls to build suspense, it usually using a buzz roll. Ties can be used in the same way as the previous exercise here. In the example below the buzz roll is held over the '+' after beat 2 and quaver beat on beat 3. You could notate this as a quarter note but this can be uncomfortable to read. The tie makes it clear that you have held the note over a beat. A buzz roll is notated with a 'z' through the stem of the note.

A buzz roll example

To sum up about ties, they only need to be used when a note needs to be held for an explicit length that regular note values or dotted notes can't cover. Let's quickly discuss two inappropriate uses of ties.

Inappropriate Use Of Ties 1

An example of inappropriate ties use

Both ties in the example above are unnecessary. First of all the crash at the start can just be written as a crotchet. If you aren't explicitly telling someone to choke at a later point there is no point in using a tie, as with most parts of the drum kit it should be assumed that it will be hit and left to ring as long as it can. The tie between the two hi hats later on in the bar is also not needed. Here it is much better to use an eighth note rest. The tie is not telling you anything useful as a closed hi hat can't hold a sound for any specific length. If the hi hat was opened on the '+' after beat 2 the tie might be necessary. Here's the bar of music written more cleanly:

Example 6 tidied up

Inappropriate Use Of Ties 2

An example of inappropriate ties use

Again, all ties in the example above are unnecessary and make the notation very hard to follow. The first tie linking the snare on beat 1 to the snare on the '+' isn't telling you anything useful and should be replaced with a dot. In the second set of tied notes the second snare should be replaced with an eighth note rest. Under the third tie the second snare should be replaced with a sixteenth note rest. And the final set of tied notes should be replaced with an eighth note. The second and third set of ties could be forgiven if the snare was being buzzed or rolled but the first and last set of tied notes is bad notation, whatever technique is being used. Here is the notation cleaned up:

Example 8 tidied up

Dotted notes are far more common as they are great for keeping notation tidy, but that is the main purpose for using them. Again, the only time you would need to use dotted notes to say 'hold the note for this length' is with the examples discussed above. Any other use is just to prevent extra rests cluttering up the notation. Let's take a look at some written example of both good and bad use of dots.

Example Of Dot Use 1

An example of dot use

Here both sets of dots are appropriately used. Using rests to show that the hi hat comes in on the '+' after beat 2 would clutter up the notation unnecessarily and the same applies with the snare notes around beat 2.

Example Of Dot Use 2

An example of dot use

This is a horrific use of dots. They have been added here because the notes 'last' odd amounts but what has happened is that all sense of relation to the pulse has been removed making it very easy to get lost within this bar. Here is the same bar of music tidied up, it's not much nicer but it is a little easier to follow:

Example 10 corrected

Rests are used when a note falls somewhere that can't be reached with a regular note value or a dotted note. Let's quickly look at a bad examples of rest use.

Inappropriate Use Of Rests

An example of inappropriate rest use

In this example an obscene amount of rests have been used when standard note values and dots would have been much clearer. As discussed above, this makes the music very hard to follow as it removes all sense of pulse from the notation. Here is the bar written correctly:

Example 12 tidied up

After reading the above you will hopefully now have a good understanding of which form of notation is best for different situations. Remember that your goal is to make the notation as readable as possible by following the notation law of grouping notes to the pulse. With that in mind, the priority should always be to use standard note values wherever possible. When a note is 'unreachable' by this method, dots and rests become necessary. Dots are preferable to rests as they make for cleaner notation but do not allow the desire for tidy sheet music to force you to break the grouping rules. Ties only ever need to be used when a note needs to be held for a specific amount of time. Even in these cases, standard note values and dots are preferable. Only use ties when other methods don't allow you notate the part correctly.

If you have a lot of ties, rests or dots within your notation it would be worth questioning whether you have used the appropriate methods.

I'll finish by answering the three questions from the email:

Which is best practice for a snare or kick in 4/4 when notating the same thing: 1) a dotted quarter note; 2) a quarter note tied to an 8th note; or 3) a quarter note followed by an 8th note rest?

  • 1) This is the preferable form of notation as it is 'cleanest'.
  • 2) Unless the quarter uses any of the techniques discussed above to create a held note, a tie is unnecessary clutter.
  • 3) Unless there is a very important reason why a rest needs to be used this just creates clutter in notation.


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