How To Write For Percussion
Published by the author, 2004
Second edition, Oxford University Press, 2016

PURCHASE from OUP or Amazon.

How To Write For Percussion is lauded worldwide as the definitive resource on percussion composition. It is a comprehensive text with over NINE hours of companion videos that clearly explains and simplifies all issues that percussionists and composers face with respect to each other. Written from a percussionist’s perspective, it examines the behind-the-scenes processes to uncover all the tools the composer needs to comfortably create innovative and skilled percussion composition. HTWFP is used as required or recommended text in classrooms and private composition studios across the world. It is available in three languages.

“A true contribution to the literature of orchestration.”

Samuel Adler
Professor Emeritus, Eastman School of Music
Composition Faculty, Juilliard School
Author, The Study of Orchestration

“Percussion isn’t a particular thing; it is a lifetime of learning that can never by completely known. Mr. Solomon’s deeply thoughtful work is essential to my work, an invaluable guide, and an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Matthew Duvall
multi-Grammy-winning percussionist with eighth blackbird

“This is simply the best book on composing for percussion music out there. Solomon anticipates every question that a composer might have concerning the practical, physical and expressive ramifications of making sound by hitting things. The previous version was a fixture on my desk and this new edition with its media upgrades will be my manual for teaching.”

Steven Mackey
Professor of Music, Princeton University
Grammy Award-winning composer

How To Write For Percussion
Published by the author, 2004
Second edition, Oxford University Press, 2016

PURCHASE from OUP or Amazon.

About the book:

While composers and percussionists are working more closely than ever with one another, there are few resources that address this collaborative relationship in depth. However, Samuel Z. Solomon, himself a percussionist and teacher, offers a comprehensive examination of the issues that percussionists and composers encounter in How to Write for Percussion. The first edition, self-published in 2004, provided musicians and music programs the world over with practical and indispensible information about issues of notation, concert production, and much more. This new edition goes even further as Solomon offers more insights derived from his personal experience as a percussionist and teacher and from his collaborations with other musicians. 

The second edition of How to Write for Percussion expands the survey of behind-the-scenes processes-from instrument choice and notation to logistics, execution, and concert production-to uncover all the tools a composer needs to comfortably create innovative and skilled percussion composition. Solomon also includes more excerpts and performances as well as interviews with famous percussionists and composers that capture the intricacies of percussion composition. Moreover, the second edition features an expanded text with more instruments and more analysis, plus an extensive Online Video Companion containing over nine hours of videos with demonstrations, performances, interviews, and analysis to flesh out and clarify the material in the book. This updated edition of How to Write for Percussionwill appeal to a wide swath of musicians including composers, arrangers, and percussionists. Those who have already utilized the first edition will welcome the upgrade, and those who have yet to benefit from Solomon’s perspective will likewise find his insights illuminating.

There are nine chapters. The first four consider issues that apply to all percussion:

1. General Framework proposes concepts for how to listen to and choose percussion instruments, and how to work with the people who play them. This chapter provides a foundation for the material in the rest of the book.

2. General Logistics explores the behind-the-scenes issues of movement, instrument choice, instrument setup, and concert production. These are often overlooked concerns that significantly influence the success of a composition.

3. General Notation details the key notational concepts for percussion writing, including guidelines for how to create parts and scores, how to set up notational systems for multi-percussion setups, and how to deal with articulation, phrasing, note length, and special effects.

4. Beaters describes each beater, its specific uses, special effects, and issues of changing beaters within a piece.

The following five chapters discuss specific types of instruments:

5. Keyboard Percussion
6. Drums
7. Metal
8. Wood
9. Miscellaneous Instruments

These chapters discuss each individual instrument. Non-keyboard instruments of determinate pitch and those of indeterminate pitch are not separated from each other, because the techniques used are not necessarily different (e.g., timpani and tom-toms).

The eight appendices expand and reinforce the concepts detailed in the rest of the book:

A. Repertoire Analysis examines in detail the percussion writing of specific orchestra, wind ensemble, mixed chamber, percussion ensemble, concerto, and solo works. Much of the material for this appendix will be found online in the form of video performances and interviews.

B. Sample Setups is a collection of instrument lists with their corresponding setup diagrams and instrument keys.

C. Extended Techniques is a catalogue of playing techniques that fall outside common practice. 

D. Pitch Specification charts the appropriateness of requesting specific pitches for each of the instruments. 

E. Dynamics charts the relative sounding dynamic of each instrument struck with various beaters.

F. Register charts the sounding range for each instrument.

G. Beaters charts the appropriateness of each beater.

H. Percussion Family Tree charts each instrument with respect to its pitch clarity, register, note length, and method of sound production to describe the relationships between the instruments and explain how, why, and to what degree they are different.

How To Write For Percussion
Published by the author, 2004
Second edition, Oxford University Press, 2016

PURCHASE from OUP or Amazon.

Preface to the Second Edition:

In its first ten years, How to Write for Percussion has made its way across the world onto the desks of composers of all genres and experience levels. The response has been overwhelmingly positive as more and more composers use this book to help unlock their percussion voice. This new edition of How to Write for Percussion fulfills a promise made in the first edition with its online Video Companion, complete with demonstrations of instruments and techniques discussed in the book, plus performances and analysis of some of percussion’s most important works. 

In addition to the video materials, the text of the second edition contains more instruments, more analysis, and more insights, including a new first chapter with concepts that organize and contextualize the remainder of the book. The material for this first chapter came from observations I made after working with composers who had been using How to Write for Percussion. Many readers wrote me to share their compositions, and some caught my eye for their unique failings. These composers had written great music for other media and were clearly good composers with good taste, and yet, even while following the instructions in my book, they were not writing good percussion music. Obviously, this was my shortcoming! Through observation, experimentation, and collaboration on these issues, the material for the new first chapter took shape, and it is my belief that this new text with its Video Companion is many times more effective in priming composers for success in their percussion pursuits. 

Missing here, of course, is the most important element of successful composition: collaboration. Composers who are in touch with their performers will almost always write many times better, more effective, and more often-performed music than those who are not. Percussion is tricky, and percussionists are by and large excellent and enthusiastic collaborators. Call, email, text, or, better yet, meet with us on your percussion music. The process will strengthen your music and make your performers better at effectively realizing it. 

The many stories of successful collaborations found in the videos of appendix A recount this point, and in the spirit of the joy of collaboration, I would like to officially invite my readers to be in touch with me. Through your input and experimentation, this resource becomes better, and through your contributions to our young repertoire, the percussion community becomes more prosperous. My contact information is available online, and I am always accepting submissions. 

Samuel Solomon 2015


How To Write For Percussion
Published by the author, 2004
Second edition, Oxford University Press, 2016

PURCHASE from OUP or Amazon.

Table of Contents

How This Book is Organized
Instruments Covered
Working with Percussionists
Location Specifics
The Value of Not Reading This Book

1. General Framework
A Dysfunctional Family
Comparison of Family Relationships

The Problem of Pitch
The Pitches of Percussion
The Validations and Limitations of Novelty
Three Methods for Indeterminately Pitch Instruments

The Written/Improv Divide
Expanding the Color Palette (to Shrink the Setup)
The Value of Improvised and Non-Notated Music

Social Composition
Write for People, Not Sounds
Write What is Wanted, Not What To Do
Working with Percussionists

2. General Logistics
Instrument Choice and Management
Six Stories, Three Sad and Three Happy
Why Use Fewer Instruments?
 How to Consolidate
Inexpensive Instruments
Exotic Instruments
Electronic Percussion
Multiple Options for a Specified Instrument
Instruments Percussionists May Not Play
Multiple Percussionists
Section Setup
Wind Ensemble
Broadway Pit
Drum Corps and Marching Bands
Non-Percussionists Playing Percussion
Chairs and Stands

Issues of Playability
Excessive Polyphony
How Fast Percussionists Can Play
Unidiomatic Writing—Music that Often Requires Memorization
Reaching Instruments
Instruments with Pedals
Physical Exertion and Shaking
Working with Headphones or Headset Microphones

3. General Notation
Basics of Percussion Parts and Scores
Instrument List
Instrument Key
Setup Diagram
Percussion in the Conductor’s Score

Designing a Notational System
Mixing Determinately and Indeterminately Pitched Instruments
Key Signatures
What Goes Where on the Staff
The Chicken or the Egg?
Unspecified Instruments (Indeterminate Instrumentation)
How Much to Notate
Systems of Notation for Which There is No Standard
Return to a “Normal” Method of Playing

Note Length, Articulation, and Phrasing
Note Length Chart
Exact or Inexact Note-Length Indications
Muting (Muffling, Dampening)
Dead Stroke
Damper Pedals

Notations that are Not Recommended
Symbol Notation
Altered Keyboard Notation (Timbre-Staff)

4. Beaters
To Indicate or Not to Indicate?
Beater Lingo
Logistical Beater Issues
Triangle Beaters, Knitting Needles
Chime Hammers
Superball Mallet
Beaters as Instruments

5. Keyboard Percussion
Ranges and Construction
Writing for Keyboard Percussion
Stacked Instruments
Multiple Players
Extended Techniques

6. Drums
Sticks on Drums
Mallets on Drums
Hands on Drums
Playing on the Rim or Shell
Beating Spot
Pitch Bending
Drum Size
Two-Headed Drums
Multiple Drums in Setups
Idiomatic Writing for Drums
Snare Drum, Field Drum, Tenor Drum
Concert Bass Drum, Pedal Bass Drum
Bongos, Congas
Frame Drums
Djembe, Doumbek

7. Metal
Finger Cymbals
Cowbells, Almglocken
Temple Bowls, Mixing Bowls
Brake Drums, Metal Pipes, Anvils, Bell Plates
Junk Metal, Tin Cans, Pots and Pans
Ribbon Crasher
Spring Coil
Church Bells
Hand Bells
Steel Drums
Metal Wind Chimes, Mark Tree, Bell Tree
Extended Techniques

8. Wood
Woodblocks, Templeblocks, Log Drum
Wooden Planks
Wood Drums, Wooden Boxes, Cajón, Mahler Hammer
Bamboo Wind Chimes

9. Miscellaneous Instruments
Conch Shell
Crystal Glasses
Maracas, Shakers
Rice Bowls, Flower Pots
Sandpaper Blocks
String Drum, Cuica
Stones, Prayer Stones
Thumb Piano
Wind Chimes
Wind Machine

Appendix A. Repertoire Analysis
Percussion Ensemble
Edgard Varèse, Ionisation (1929-31)
John Cage, Constructions (1939-1942)
Iannis Xenakis, Persephassa (1969)
Steve Reich, Drumming (1970-71)
Steve Mackey, It is Time (2010)
John Luther Adams, Inuksuit (2009)
Ryan Streber, Cold Pastoral (2004)
Nico Muhly, Ta & Clap (2004)
Adam Silverman, Naked and On Fire (2011)
Paul Lansky, Travel Diary (2007)

Bela Bartók
Sergei Prokofiev
Maurice Ravel
Gustav Mahler
Dmitri Shostakovich
Leonard Bernstein
Carl Nielsen
Jean Sibelius
Wind Ensemble

Smaller Mixed Ensemble
John Adams, Chamber Symphony (1992)
Stephan Hartke, Meanwhile (2007)
Jacob Druckman, Come Round (1992)
Charles Wuorinen, New York Notes (1982)
Pierre Boulez, Sur Incises (1996/1998)

Percussion Solo—Drums
Michio Kitazume, Side by Side (1991)
Elliott Carter, Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (1950/1966)
Casey Cangelosi, Meditation No. 1 (2011)

Percussion Solo­—Keyboards
Jacob Druckman, Reflections on the Nature of Water (1986)
Paul Simon, Amulet (2008)
Steve Mackey, See Ya Thursday (1992)
Steve Swallow/Gary Burton, I’m Your Pal/Hullo Bolinas
Donald Martino, Soliloquy (2003)

Percussion Solo—Multi-Percussion
Iannis Xenakis, Psappha (1975)
David Lang, Anvil Chorus (1991)
Roger Reynolds, Watershed (1995)
Four Pieces for “Setup #1”
Nico Muhly, It’s About Time (2004)
Michael Early, Raingutter (2007)
Marcos Balter, Descarga (2006)
Judd Greenstein, We Shall Be Turned (2006)

Percussion Concerto
James MacMillan, Veni Veni Emmanuel (1992)
Einojuhani Rautavaara, Incantations (2008)
Steven Mackey, Micro-Concerto (1999)

Orchestrating Native Sounds

Appendix B. Sample Setups

Appendix C. Extended Techniques
Return to a “Normal” Method of Playing
Manipulations of Timbre
Striking Unusual Parts of an Instrument
Unusual Usage of Beaters
Dead Stroke
Beating Spot
Friction Roll
Prepared Instruments
Pitch Bending
Adding Mass
Sympathetic Resonance

Appendix D. Pitch Specification

Appendix E. Dynamics

Appendix F. Register

Appendix G. Beaters

Appendix H. Percussion Family Tree
Pitch Clarity Chart
Note Length Chart
Register Chart
Sound Production Chart
The Percussion Family Tree

How To Write For Percussion
Published by the author, 2004
Second edition, Oxford University Press, 2016

PURCHASE from OUP or Amazon.

The videos below are samples from the Video Companion to How To Write For Percussion by Samuel Z. Solomon. This resource contains over nine hours of videos with demonstrations, performances, interviews, and analysis to flesh out the material in the book. In many cases, the information in the video is necessary for full understanding of the discussions in the text. Conversely, the text is essential to the full understanding of what is found in the videos. So please use both the book and video together, rather than referring to one or the other alone.

All of the video demonstrations are purposely simple and quickly paced. They are recorded in practice rooms, teaching studios, and rehearsal spaces—with no EQ, reverb, or other effects applied—and the instruments presented are of common quality. These recordings aim to present a realistic experience of being in a percussionist’s space, listening to his or her instruments, rather than a curated recording-studio experience with the best instruments and conditions possible. Examples of ensemble repertoire are presented from the audience’s perspective, that is, the blend of the percussion sounds are the realistic in context of the ensemble, rather than a close-up of that instrument’s sound. 

It is recommended the viewer use headphones or high quality speakers to gain the best representation of this sounds. It is also recommended the viewer watch the videos in full screen HD, especially when score excerpts are presented.

Video 1.e Additional Family Examples

Video 1.k The Composer’s Cowbell / The Improvisor’s Cowbell

Video 2.a Setup Consolidation

Video 3.a Note Length and Articulation

Video 5.f Thumbs and Pinkies

Video 6.f Tomtoms, Snare Drums, and Bass Drums

Video 7.g Thundersheet, Tin Cans, Junk Metal, Pots and Pans, and Ribbon Crasher

Video A.i1 Bartok

Video A.t1 Introduction to “Setup #1” 

Video A.t2 Nico Muhly’s It’s About Time

Video A.t3 Michael Early’s Raingutter

Video A.t4 Marcos Balter’s Descarga

Video A.t5 Judd Greenstein’s We Shall Be Turned

Com compondre per a percussió
Published by Dinsic Publicacions Musicals, 2008

The Catalan translation of the first edition of How To Write For Percussion was the book’s first published translation. Much thanks to Dinsic Publicacions Musicals, Roxan Jurkevich, and Peter Bacchus.

Read more, see excerpts, and purchase from Dinisc here.

The Chinese Translation of the first edition of How To Write For Percussion.

Published by The People’s Music Publishing House (2014)


The First Edition of How To Write For Percussion

Self-Published by the author (2002)

The first edition sold over 4500 copies worldwide! Fun fact, if you look at the cover at the right angle, you can see the first few bars of Xenakis’s O-Mega.