[l56] Perc. Analysis (pt. 1)

Posted by leemcd56 on March 13, 2012, 11:36 p.m.

Analyzing On-field Percussion Arrangement

Part 1

Warning: This is a really long blog, and there is no TL;DR. A lot of time was put into writing this blog.


As I have in several of my previous blogs, this blog contains a lot of content about un-pitched percussion instead of pitched music itself. In it, I will briefly cover one of my hobbies: arranging percussion for on-field performances. Needless to say, I don't do this job for schools or corps so none is ever played, but like any amateur hobbyest the completion of a project is totally worth the time put in to it. With that said, let's get started! In October of 2011, I was browsing YouTube and found this video: Pokemon Intro | Finale 2011 [Drum Corps Arrangement], wherein the arranger left this comment: "I'm looking for a percussion writer to write in percussion." I commented and later he emailed me, thus beginning the project. For two months we emailed back and forth, adding battery percussion, some temporary mallet music, and shaping the arrangement, but then he cancelled. The arrangement and my writing sat in a folder on my desktop until now; it never moved forward and no one ever heard it.

Though my writing style progresses a lot, thanks to my many influences, I would have approached this project differently but I haven't rewritten anything as nothing is going to change.

In this series of blogs we're going to analyze writing percussion for an on-field show. I'll cover any detail I possibly can, and if you have any questions I'll explain them not in comments but in proceeding blogs. Why an on-field show, you may ask? In modern music, percussion provides rhythmic support for instrumentalists as well as the music, so while you can have a string quartet or a piano concerto that would not have percussion, their use in compositions for films and video games add tasteful accents and textures that wind and string instruments cannot. Exotic instruments such as the djembe, darbuka, and the cajon are perfect examples of this (Carolina Crown's percussion ensemble rehearsing "Paint It Black" – towards the beginning you can hear the darbuka). On-field percussion, unlike on-stage percussion, is complex in both musicality and technicality because on-stage is supported mostly by wind and string instruments, and thus in many occasions percussion is well underwritten. Outside, however, requires percussion to take a hold of music, because on-stage instrumentalists can sit and don't require as much physical performance as outdoor, marching musicians. Thus, percussion is even more of the backbone that holds both time and music together.

Any comments not pertaining to this blog will be removed. This is meant to be both informal and educational, and took quite a bit of time to write and revise – even if it's not the best it could be. So, please be respectful, guys.

Wind Overscore:

While not always required, wind instruments provide the overscore to many compositions, especially on the field. Writing to accompany the wind section's music can often be really complicated. Melodic, counter-melodic, harmonic, and chromatic arrangements of music (when used appropriately) will make music "pop", while adding complex rhythms, meter changes, textured instruments, can have the same effect. Polyrhythms (when two or more rhythms are layered on-top of each other), are the most common example of complex rhythms in any form of music. One section can play eighth notes and percussion can play triplets – thus creating a simple polyrhythm.

The complexity of one's arrangement varies on how complex the wind score is, or is not. One doesn't want to overwrite, and make the percussion overpower the brass, nor does one want to underwrite it and make it immaculate, where the percussion is hardly noticeable. The percussion section has to be the driving force behind each show.

Below is the audio file of project between McLarty and me. All of the brass was arranged by him, and the percussion was by me. The percussion will, at sometimes, overshadow the brass because that is one of Sibelius' bad habits (even if adjusted in the mixer).


As you can tell, the percussion is way more complex than the brass written before it, and yet they both compliment each other. Using dynamics, rests, articulations, note durations, and tempo changes, as well as vocal polyrhythms, I could write out a percussion score that could get the crowd going in both the lot ("parking lot", where each section warms up before the shows) and in the stands. While my writing doesn't rival that of professionals, it's still more complex than those you would find in a weak marching band.

Before we go any further, you can download the whole score and MP3s to go along with these blogs. Just click here (compressed ZIP, 12.2MB; includes drumline score, perc. score, brass score, and sectional audio).

Getting Started:

Let's take a look at measures 1-21 (before letter B) in the file pokemon_perc_ensemble.pdf. Measures 1-10 are set at m.m. 90, and brass slowly play through the Pokemon theme. I admit, I underwrote the front ensemble, and on the field that would make this section sound flat, however the battery is playing what it needs and is fine. We're focused on setting up the show, so a slow introduction builds the tension before we transition into the Battle theme. While the brass plays, tenors and basses use soft mallets (a.k.a. "puffies", named for the cotton or felt tips) and play soft buzz rolls, which add a low bass tone to the music, then switch to normal mallets. Auxiliary percussion compliments low brass with wind chimes and wood blocks. At measure 11, tempo doubles to m.m. 180, and marimbas enter with a harmonic triplet run decrescendoing to silence. At measure 16, tenors reenter with triplet buzzes on spocks and drum 1, followed by snares and basses. Cymbals play a long sizzle, which is their sound-wise equivalent of a buzz roll. The bassline then plays split tripleted-eights (ratio 4:3) and switches to two fivelets in the next measure, with a unison on the fifth partial of the second fivelet and first partial of count 1 on measure 21.

Confusing? Yes. What is the purpose? Simple: Not only does it give the drumline something to play, but illustrates the music is about to get louder and is building (creates suspense). Notice the drumline does not overshadow the brassline, and creates a subtle undertone to what is happening, as well as what is about to happen.

To be continued…


Iasper 9 years, 10 months ago

How can one person play five notes at once?

leemcd56 9 years, 10 months ago

How can one person play five notes at once?
It's split; each drum gets one space, so they play whatever is in that space at specific time. It can get ridiculously difficult, but it can be done. Also, one can play a mallet instrument with up to six mallets, so technically can play up to six notes at one time.

theattacka 9 years, 10 months ago

Only instrument i can play is Electric guitar but i like to make electronica music with FL studio which is pretty darn fun

JuurianChi 9 years, 10 months ago


There is no such thing as tl;dr with this blog.

firestormx 9 years, 10 months ago

I read it; pretty cool. =)

But the internet in my hotel room is too slow to even attempt to download the 12MB file. (not that I would be able to read it well enough to be able to appreciate it anyway - the description you wrote was perfectly clear though)

Edit: Oh yeah, why was the commenting on the meme blog disabled?

leemcd56 9 years, 10 months ago

Thanks Juurian and FSX :]

@FSX: Um, I'm not sure… but I think a mod must have gotten tired of seeing it. lol