How I notate rhythms for the bodhrán

The bodhrán notation I use

As with many aspects of the bodhrán, there are lots of different ways that players like to notate the rhythms they play. The way I notate bodhrán rhythms is based on what Martin O’Neill taught me; I’ve changed this slightly a few times depending on what my students have found easiest but it’s more or less stayed the same over the years.


I am very much a believer that everyone does what works for them and think that is especially true with the bodhrán where many players have completely unique techniques/grips/methods. That’s one of the things I think is fascinating about the bodhrán! One of the only things I (personally) don’t like is bodhrán notation with no sense of rhythm. Many ways I have seen bodhrán rhythms transcribed consists almost exclusively of up and down arrows, maybe with a time signature at the start of the pattern. Since we’re playing rhythm instruments, I think it’s imperative that we use notation based at least loosely on standard music or rhythm notation to give an idea of the timing and beats that we’re following.


I also know people learn in many different ways; some people find notation really useful, and again others would never want to use it. I think it’s a useful skill to have, even if you won’t ever need to sight read; you can use it to really slow down and learn rhythms, figure things out if you’re having trouble with a certain rhythm, and use it as a way to remember rhythms if you hear something good and want to make a note of it. If you already know how to read music, this will be easy to follow. If you don’t know how to read music, it’s not hard to figure out! And if you have no desire whatsoever to use notation, then keep learning by ear or whatever way works best for you.


One other note here before we dive in to what the notation I use looks like: I like to write these out by hand. There are music transcribing softwares out there that are readily available but for now I still really enjoy transcribing by hand, and as I wanted to get this out there for the students currently working through my courses, I decided to continue with this for the time being.


What do I need to know to read this notation?


Here is what a very basic bar of 4/4 bodhrán notation looks like, so that we can break down each individual element and get ready to read a whole rhythm:

At the beginning of the bar, the || indicates this is written for a percussion instrument. We then have our time signature; here it’s 4/4. This indicates how many beats are in the bar, so most commonly you’ll see 4/4, 6/8, 9/8 etc. At the end of the rhythm, you’ll see :|| which indicates you are to repeat what you’ve just played.


Within this bar, I’ve notated what a low tone, middle tone, and high tone look like. If you’ve been following my lessons, you’ll know in this style of playing we subscribe to the following:


  • All tones are accented.
  • Notes in between tones are ‘no tones’ (hand flat on the back of the drum).


Accents are indicated by a > on top of a tone, and all ‘no tones’ are indicated by an x on the note. Low tones are at the bottom of the staff, middle tones are in the middle of the staff, and high tones are at the top of the staff. In ‘normal’ music, these notes have names, but here we use them as more of a visual representation of the tones we’ll be playing.


Underneath all of the notes in a rhythm, I always indicate a downstroke with a ‘D’ under the note, and an upstroke with a ‘U’ under the note.


Transcription of 4/4 rhythm in bodhrán notation


Now we can take the information above and look at how we pull this together for some basic rhythms. Here’s a ‘normal’ 4/4 rhythm where we would have a low tone on beat 1 and a high tone on beat 3:

As you can see, there is an accented low tone on beat 1, an accented high tone on beat 3, and ‘no tones’ in between all of those. You can also easily see all of the downstrokes and upstrokes indicated by either ‘D’ or ‘U’ underneath.


Transcription of 6/8 rhythm in bodhrán notation


Here’s the notation for a standard 6/8 rhythm where we have a low tone on beat 1 and a high tone on beat 4. You can see this immediately looks slightly different as the time signature is now 6/8, indicating 6 beats in the bar:

The downstrokes and upstrokes look slightly different here, because our double downs are notated just like that: D D U.


In conclusion


I find notation really useful, even though I learn primarily by ear and don’t often sight read music. It’s a great way to share music with others, another way to make lessons more accessible to students who learn more easily by reading music, and a great way to remember a rhythm if you hear something good and need to make a quick note of it.

I would love to hear about the type of notation you use. Do you use it at all? If you do, how similar is it to this style of bodhrán notation? Let me know in the comments below!

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