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Despite congas being nothing like a marginal instrument, a widespread and universally acknowledged system of transcription specific for this drum hasn’t settled yet. Some systems are more commonly used than others, some are less, but in general when it comes to transcribing for congas everyone is left to their own initiative, having to pick from the available techniques the one which is more suitable to one’s particular purpose, and try to make a score as readable as possible.


There are several reasons for this gap in the world of music writing. One is that in a majority of cases transcriptions for congas are employed to communicate musical informations between players of the same instrument, often between teacher and student; which means that both interlocutors already share a lot of pre-established informations: both are dealing with a material which is familiar and limited in scope, and one only needs to give a generic indication of what he wants to convey in order to be understood.

Another cause is probably found in the fact that conga drums, unlike most other percussion instruments, have to this day failed to be taken seriously by composers, classical and Broadway alike. In regards to the former the absence of congas in “serious” music is practically total, apart from few cases where they are to be played with sticks, and are treated therefore just like some random drum, with disregard to their idiomatic legacy. When it comes to theatre composers instead, the situation is one in which the player is more or less expected to understand what the score is referring to, even with minimal and approximate instructions.

In addition, the scarcity of exemplar uses of congas which go beyond their traditional linear rhythm-keeping role, feeds back on this lack of interest among composers, who fail to see a challenge and will be content to confine their instructions to “play that rhythm here” and “stop playing here”, or “play this stab here”.

One of the main challenges of transcribing for congas is that one single drum can produce an array of different tones; this is often resolved by assigning different tones to different lines in the stave, but it becomes a problem when you need to write for more than two drums. Keeping each drum confined to one line is therefore crucial, and the solution is either to add symbols at the bottom of the staff, or to employ a prescribed set of different noteheads, one for each tone. The former solution is limited, in that it takes up a space that cannot then be used for other instructions, like sticking or dynamics, and we are left therefore with the differently shaped noteheads option.


Imagination has run unleashed for decades as to which notehead shape each tone may be associated, but most seem to agree that the open tone is a straight round black notehead, and the slap is an X-shaped one. Another small group of sounds are the ones produced by the palm-tip movement common to most Cuban-centred genres, and a solution seen more often than others consists of triangle-shaped noteheads: vertex up for the palm, vertex down for the tip. These make for very clear reading, but are rather awkward and time-consuming when it comes to handwritten music. Speed of handwriting in music is a priority, and this is therefore a problem that I feel needed to be addressed. Black squares and rectangles have also been seen in adventurous congas transcriptions, but they present the same limitations.


One thing to be acknowledged with congas notation is that there are different levels of precision needed for different requirements. Specific as their vision might be, a pop producer, a jazz composer or a Broadway arranger know that they can rock up with a part containing the main defining accents of a rhythm, and rely on the player for filling up the rest and make the part idiomatic for the instrument; which is fair enough, and works fine most of the times.

Educational literature on the other hand, that which deals with notating studies and exercises, requires the instructions to be exact and unambiguous down to every single note; but in most cases the musical material is very schematic and, more often than not, built on a constant simple rhythmic grid. The notation systems available nowadays fulfil these functions satisfactorily enough.

But what if a composer decides to delve into the full extent of idiomatic possibilities of our dear instrument, liaises with a proficient player (as composers do) and creates a piece which challenges and transcends the customary use of the instrument? What if, say, Luciano Berio would have wanted to write a ‘Sequenza’ for congas?

- - -


With this method I would like to propose a system of transcription which I have been using for decades, and it is the one employed throughout the many pages of studies that follow. It was devised with the purpose of increasing in both simplicity and versatility, and of fulfilling the following requirements:


- Must be concise in its graphic appearance, to facilitate reading;

- Must be extremely fast to write by hand;

- Must make use of the smallest possible number of notehead symbols, aided by conventional articulations, like the staccato dot or the common accent;

- Each drum must be confined to one line (or space) in the stave.


My aim is also that of providing a system which remains fundamentally the same, whether you need to sketch a simple rhythm or create an extremely complicated part, where articulate and precise instructions are needed. It should not limit the number of drums that can be used in a part, allow for both unspecified and defined tuning, and for all existing tones to be employed on ANY of the drums in a set, and not just on the central one. Such system of notation should not stop short of resources when new adventurous and as yet unpredictable situations are created for the instrument.


The system I am proposing here makes use of only four simple conventional noteheads: the black dot, the cross, the round hollow note and the slash; thus we have:

- The Open Tone: 

- The Slap

- Palm

- Tip


- The so-called “muff”, the short tone obtained by pressing the skin instead of letting it ring after an open tone, is represented using a very conventional musical articulation: the staccato dot on top of the black round notehead. This, in fact, is precisely what the “muff” is: a shortened open tone.


In conga playing the palm stroke can be used either within the context of the palm-tip motion or on its own; in the majority of cases this differentiation is made obvious by the context, and doesn’t need to be specified. Should however a differentiation become necessary, as in a palm hit played during the phrasing of a solo, or as an emphasis when the drum is raised by the knees for extra depth and sustain (like on the “push” of a guaguancó), it will be sufficient to add an accent mark:


Again, but only if and when this is necessary, the different types of slap can be specified too:

- A slap closed by the action of the other hand (as in the context of a Tumbao) written as a staccato slap: 

- A normal closed slap, where the hand stays on the skin: 


- An open slap, which is let to ring:  either                   or

- A slap played in the same position as a tip stroke (on the drum’s centre): 


To reiterate, the last few specifications would only be needed in extremely detailed transcriptions, and in most cases all we are ever going to need to use are four noteheads:


- open:                , slap:                , palm:                , tip:


With the option of staccato and accent articulations when required. Again for non-specific “composer” transcriptions, the slashed notehead can stand for generic ghosting, when additional details are superfluous to the purpose and can be left to the performer.


For more extreme articulations, and use of extended techniques, additional annotations can be employed as easily as in any other instrument: in the same way that we can write sul ponticello, or col legno on a violin part, we can instruct our conga player to play on the edge of the drum with the fingertips, on the centre with his knuckles and so on. A simple example is the familiar “glissando” you can get on the conga by sliding a wet middle finger on the skin after hitting it with the other hand: this can be written as an open tone, followed by a symbol for glissando, which already exists in conventional musical notation.

A composer who knows the instrument well enough to write an informed part, but doesn’t extend his knowledge to the most minute technical details of the instrument, can use the simple open and slap symbols, adding slash notehead as “ghost” notes for filling a part where it is obvious that all the subdivisions need to be played, and leave the technical details to the player. But if another composer wants to give extremely detailed instructions, and tell a performer exactly what to play note by note, beyond any possible misinterpretation, the same set of symbols can be used with satisfactory result.

In many instances a simple two stroke palm-tip sequence is played with one hand as a one-off filler, either at the prevailing subdivisions of a piece or in its sub-units. This, in the conga lexicon, has a similar function to the “diddle” in stick playing, and it is employed to readjust or switch the sticking during phrasing on the drum. In a fully written part this is often made obvious only by the sticking instructions, when they are employed at all; and even in those cases it may not be visually immediate for the reader. For this sort of instances, my suggestion is to mark the two consecutive hits with a legato slur. This would make it visually obvious and helpful in both cases of parts with or without sticking notation, and if extended to longer one-hand palm-tip sequences it could in fact often eliminate the need of sticking notation altogether.

So, as an option, when required for ease of readability:

                instead of                     Or even simply:

when sticking is intuitively obvious or irrelevant for the purpose of the part.

One can see this solution coming handy also when a continuous longer sequence of palm-tip hits is to be performed with the same hand, either specified

or unspecified.

Within this platform, the first example will be used consistently on all studies concerned with Core Motion E.

treble clef 8va.png

For the love of thoroughness, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of further tones that can be played on congas, several of which are widely used:


- The aforementioned Glissando, apparently also known as “Moose Call”.


- A raise of pitch (up to three semitones) obtained by pressing the centre of the drum with the elbow, while playing an open tone with the other hand.


- The drum is hit by the tip of the index finger in proximity of the skin’s edge (timbrically equivalent to sul ponticello for bowed strings).


- As above, while the opposite forearm alters the pitch by leaning on the skin and moving towards or away from the hitting hand.


- All five fingertips are tightened together, and hit the centre of the skin vertically.


- A finger is placed at the centre of the skin, while the other hand slaps, producing a harmonic overtone.


- As above, with the index fingertip instead of a full-hand slap.


- Drum is slammed by a clenched fist.


- Drum is hit by the knuckles, at any point along the skin’s radius (centre to edge)


This system of notation allows for simple unpitched one-line transcriptions, and can be expanded to two, three or five-lines, depending on the number of drums, without altering its basic functionality. Normal five-line staff can be employed for either unspecified tuning (headed by the neutral clef), or for precisely tuned drums; in this last case, the “treble clef 8va bassa” usually covers the full available range of all sizes without the need of more than one ledger line at either end of the staff.

However, in virtue of the fact that once a set has been tuned the notes stay the same for the duration of the performance, you may find that it is more practical to specify the tuning at the beginning of a score, and then place the drums’ relative pitches on lines or spaces that are visually more convenient for the reader, on a neutral clef staff.

- A tip stroke can often appear as a “ghost” note, played with the hand either in the same position of an open, or on the centre of the drum, as in the palm-tip sequences. Whereas the exact position is usually made obvious by the context, we may, at times, want to specify a ghost note by closing it in between brackets.


Open Tone:


Generic Slap:


Tip: (and unspecified


Muff (or Press):


Accented Palm:



Closed Slap

(by the opposite hand):


Closed Slap:


Open Slap:


Slap on skin’s centre

(tip accent):


Ghost Note:

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