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Atonal instruments, as the name implies, are musical instruments that have no tone or pitch. These are normally percussive instruments such as cymbals, drums, and congas. These instruments still feature in orchestras, bands and other musical arrangements so there must be written music for them, enabling musicians to play these instruments just like any pitched instrument.

The Stave

The stave or staff looks similar to that for other instruments with a few differences. One immediately notices the absence of a bass or treble clef at the beginning of the stave and that one stave suffices for all the instruments being played. In the case of a drum kit, for instance, the condensed stave accomodates music for drums being played with the feet and the hands on a single stave. The value of each note follows the rules laid down for tonal instruments. My crude ASCII diagram shows what each note represents. The attempt at two vertical lines on the left represent the neutral clef.

                                       X       crash cymbal
                                     X        ride cymbal
------------------------------------------------------
                                 o      tom drum
-|-|--------------------------------------------------
 | |                         o     snare drum
-|-|--------------------------------------------------
 | |                       o     floor tom
------------------------------------------------------
                        o     bass drum
------------------------------------------------------
                    X       hi-hat

The Condensed Stave

The significance of this type of stave might not be instantly apparent. However one frequently encounters a two - four bar with a minim for the bass drum and a crotchet for the snare drum, adding up to three beats in theory. However, the bass drum is to be considered to be on a separate stave, eliminating the discrepancy.
Why Bother

Unless percussionists play with an orchestra, they seldom consider learning to read music to be necessary. This can work out perfectly for some but prove a limiting factor to others. It is always better to learn the proper way from the start though, since bad habits are very hard to break. If one intends playing with an Orchestra, this ceases to be a recommendation and becomes a must.

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