Beginners Music Theory/Four-Mallet Percussion

Fig. 1 An example of a 4-note chord that can be played using double vertical strokes. To the left is the chord as it would be written in a piece of music, and to the right are the intervals held by the left hand and right hand to play the chord.
Fig. 2 An example of a passage where a percussionist would use single independent strokes to perform the music. The numbers below the music instruct the player as to which mallet plays which note.

Four-mallet percussion edit

Fig. 3 An example of music that uses alternating strokes, the right hand alternates between mallets 3 and 4 to play the notes
1, 2, 3, 4 Mallet identifications:
1 = Far left mallet
2 = Second to left mallet
3 = Second to right mallet
4 = Far right mallet
Fig. 4 An example of a passage that uses double lateral strokes in both the left and right hands. Typically, double lateral strokes will be written with smaller note values (like sixteenth notes)

Mallets 1 and 2 are held in the left hand, and mallets 3 and 4 are held in the right hand.

Some systems reverse the numbers (e.g., 4 = Far left mallet, 3 = Second to left mallet, etc.)
Fig. 5 An example of a passage that uses triple lateral strokes in both the left and right hands.

In Steven's Grip, 2 mallet passages will be played with mallets 2 and 3. In Burton Grip, 2 mallet passages can be played by mallets 2 and 3 or mallets 2 and 4.

The interval between 2 mallets in one hand (mallets 1&2 or mallets 3&4) can be any interval between a 2nd and an octave. Some players are able to hold a 9th or 10th in one hand as well, but it's generally very difficult.

Four-Mallet Techniques edit

There are a verity of different stroke types that can be done with 4 mallets. Each technique can be done holding any interval, but a general rule to follow is that these techniques are easier when holding comfortable intervals (3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths) and harder when holding extreme intervals (2nds, 7ths, octaves). Depending on the 4 mallet grip used, some techniques may be easier or more difficult, or may have a tendency to be louder or softer. Typically, lateral strokes, independent strokes and one-handed rolls are the easiest to perform with Steven's grip, and double vertical strokes and single independent strokes are louder when using Burton grip.

Double Vertical Stroke edit

This is the most basic 4 mallet stroke, and the most similar to the stroke used when playing with 2 mallets. In a double vertical stroke, both mallets in the left or right hand strike the board at the same time (either mallets 1&2 or mallets 3&4). This allows a percussionist to play 2 notes at the same time with one hand, and the interval between the two notes can be as wide as an octave or as small as a second. Using double vertical strokes the keyboard can play 4 note chords, using a set interval in the left hand and set interval in the right hand. Keep in mind that it is hard to shift to "extreme" intervals (2nds and octaves) accurately, especially in Burton grip, so try to write chords that use 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and 6ths when writing for beginner/intermediate percussionists.

Fig. 6 An example of a passage utilizing a one-handed roll in the left hand while the right hand plays an independent line. The speed of the roll is typically left up to the performer and not notated.

Single Independent Stroke edit

A stroke is classified as a single independent strokes when only a single mallet from each hand is used (ex. 323232... or 42424242...) The mallet being used to play rotates to strike the board while the unused mallet remains still in the air. This stroke type is commonly used for melodic figures, sixteenth-note runs or 2 mallet passages when holding 4 mallets, since it emulates 2 mallet playing. Keep in mind it is typically more difficult for a percussionist to play a passage using single independent strokes than it is to play with 2 mallets, especially beginner percussionists. Although one-hand intervals don't apply to this stroke type, players typically keep their hands in intervals of 4ths or 5ths, since the size of the interval is comfortable and easy to rotate around.

Single Alternating Stroke edit

Fig. 7 An example of a passage that switches between single independent strokes and double vertical strokes at separate times

A single alternating stroke is when 2 mallets in a single hand alternate between each other to play notes (ex. 343434... or 212121...). The mallet being used to strike the board alternates between the left and right mallet in the hand (either between mallets 1&2 or 3&4). It's important to note the difference between independent and alternating strokes, in single independent strokes the 2 mallets being used to strike the board are in two different hands, but in single alternating strokes the 2 mallets being used to strike the board are in the same hand. This technique can usually be used to minimize motion across the keyboard, for example Fig. 3 could be played with only mallet 3, but it would require moving mallet 3 from C to G repeatedly. By holding an interval of a 5th in the right hand with mallet 3 on C and mallet 4 on G (as the music indicates), the performer can use single alternating strokes to play the passage without moving their hand.

Fig. 8 A permutation that uses single alternating strokes in both hands, in this case the hands are offset from each other by a sixteenth note

Double Lateral Stroke edit

Double lateral strokes (as well as triple lateral strokes) are one of the most difficult types of strokes, and they occur when two mallets in one hand strike the board in quick succession (Either 1-2/2-1, or 3-4/4-3). Upon first look it may seem like double lateral strokes and single alternating strokes are the same (both strokes play 2 notes with the 2 different mallets in a single hand, either mallets 1/2 or 3/4), but the main difference between the two is tempo. At slower tempos, the sticking 3-4 can be played as single alternating strokes, where each note is a separate and defined motion, but at higher tempos, the sticking 3-4 is typically played as a double lateral, where the motion between the two mallets is a smooth connected roll-like motion. Another key difference is that single-alternating strokes can be played immediately after each other (such as in Fig. 3, where each mallet is played an eighth note after the other). Double lateral strokes, however, need a small amount of rest after being performed (such as in Fig. 4, where there is an eighth note of space between each 3-4 double lateral). This technique is very hard to do in smaller intervals (2nds and 3rds), especially in Burton grip, and generally it's easier for percussionists to to do this technique when it is initiated from the outside mallet as opposed to the inside mallet (4-3 and 1-2 is easier than 3-4 and 2-1).

Triple Lateral Stroke edit

Fig. 9 An example of a passage that utilizes two different stroke types in each hand, single alternating strokes in the right hand and double lateral strokes in the left hand

Triple lateral strokes are unique in the fact that they are a 3-note stroke. Triple lateral strokes occur when one hand quickly "see-saws" between two notes, and there are only 4 mallet combinations that can be triple lateral strokes (2-1-2, 1-2-1, 3-4-3, and 4-3-4). Similarly to double lateral strokes, at slow tempos this combination of mallets could be played as 3 separate single alternating strokes, but at high tempos it becomes a triple lateral stroke and is played with a smooth and connected rotating motion. As opposed to double lateral strokes though, it is typically easier to play triple lateral strokes from the inside-out (3-4-3) than it is to play from the outside in (4-3-4). In general triple laterals only use 2 unique notes, the repeated mallet doesn't change notes (as shown in Fig. 5), but some 4 mallet pieces do require the performer to change notes during the stroke, although it is more difficult. This technique is considered more of an advanced technique, and it is extremely difficult to do when held in a 2nd, especially in Burton grip.

One-Handed Roll edit

The name of this technique is self explanatory, using 4 mallets a percussionist can play a roll between two notes with one hand (rolling either between mallets 1-2 or between mallets 3-4) by relaxing and rotating the mallets back and forth. This technique typically isn't notated out rhythmically, instead an interval is written onto the page, along with notation for which mallets play the roll. Sometimes a one-handed roll is used on its own and the opposite hand is held below the board for effect, and sometimes the opposite hand plays a line independent of the roll (as shown in Fig. 6).

Fig. 10 An example of a permutation that uses both triple lateral strokes and double lateral strokes in separate hands

Combining 4 Mallet Techniques edit

Switching Between Techniques edit

4 mallet percussion passages don't have to be restricted to a single stroke type, in fact it's very common for music to utilize multiple different 4 mallet stroke types at separate times, or to use 2 different stroke types in each hand. Fig. 7 provides an example of a passage that asks the performer to quickly switch between to separate stroke types, single independent strokes for the sixteenth note runs and double vertical strokes for the chords. It serves as an example of a 4 mallet passage that doesn't need 4 mallets for the entirety of the passage, the run could be played with only 2 mallets, but the chords cannot. It also serves as an example of why single independent strokes are important in 4 mallet percussion, because composers may juxtapose 4 mallet techniques (such as 4-note chords or double lateral figures) with 2 mallet passages (such as sixteenth notes). Being able to smoothly switch between techniques is an important skill for percussionists.

Utilizing the Same Techniques in Each Hand edit

It's also common for both hands to use the same 4 mallet technique. Fig. 8 provides an example of passage that uses the single alternating stroke in both hands, the right hand alternates between A and D with mallets 3 and 4, and the left hand alternates between D and F# with mallets 1 and 2. In this case, the two hands are offset by one sixteenth note, so even though notes from two different hands are being played after each other, the motion in each of the two hands is still a single alternating stroke. This is an example of a passage that is playable with 2 mallets, but is easier with 4 mallets. A percussionist could hold 2 mallets and the left hand could shift between the D and F# while the right hand could shift between the A and D, but instead they can hold 4 mallets and place each mallet over a single note and strike it with alternating strokes without having to shift. Figures 4 and 5 also serve as examples of two hands utilizing the same technique in a passage (double lateral strokes and triple lateral strokes respectively) and Fig. 1 serves as an example of two hands using the same technique at the same exact time (two double vertical strokes to create one four note chord).

Utilizing Different Techniques in Each Hand edit

Passages will also often ask the performer to use different techniques in both their left and right hand, which is very possible. The musical example in Fig. 9 demonstrates one way to juxtapose two different stroke types, the right hand plays single alternating strokes between the notes C# and A, and the left hand fills in the space between the eighth notes with a double lateral stroke over the bass notes A and E. Fig. 6 also serves as an example of multiple different techniques being used in succession and together. In the first beat two different techniques being utilized by the left and right hand, a roll in the left hand and single alternating strokes in the left hand, the skip between C and Eb would be played as a single independent stroke because of the repeated mallet "4," and both hands use a double vertical stroke at the end of the passage to play a 4 note chord on beat 4.

Utilizing different techniques in both the left and right hand also allow percussionists to play figures that would be extremely difficult with only 2 mallets. Fig. 10 uses both double lateral strokes in the left hand and triple lateral strokes in the right hand to create a 5 note arpeggio figure that requires no shifting to play (the mallets are just set over the 4 notes of the arpeggio for the whole measure). If a percussionist were to try to play a 5 note passage like this using alternating 2 mallets (LRLRLR...), not only would they have to leap distances greater than a 5th to reach each note, but their right hand would have to cross over each beat to strike the bass note, which is very impractical. 4 mallet permutations utilizing different stroke types can create much more idiomatic and natural passages for percussionists.