Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin's use of Western staff notation for bodhrán.

Hovering over a blue letter code reveals a video animation demonstrating the corresponding stroke in that grip posture. Click on the background to close the animation.

Bodhrán Notation

Over the course of this research project, and as evidenced in my daily journaling (Sheehan, 2022a), I developed a system of bodhrán notation to enable me to record and reason about aspects of the creative process of grip switching that was at the centre of this research.



Two systems of bodhrán notation influenced the creation of my own: Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s adaptation of Western Staff notation, as used in his tutor book (Ó Súilleabháin, 1984), and Colm Murphy’s bodhrán tablature.


Ó Súilleabháin’s notation borrows the up- and down-bow articulation marks commonly added to Staff notation to indicate bowing direction for violinists, instead using them to indicate up- and down-strokes in the Mercier grip posture on bodhrán. A single-line percussion staff system is used to notate a basic rhythmic structure, with annotations for stroke direction added above the staff. Rhythms are always notated as “straight” quavers; it is assumed that the reader of the notation is “an informed one, capable of making the necessary adjustments in sound” to add an appropriate “swing” to the rhythmic structure in performance (Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 8). An example of this notation is seen here on the left.


I was introduced to Colm Murphy’s bodhrán tablature when studying with him at the music department in University College Cork (UCC). As well as being a highly-regarded professional bodhrán player, Murphy has decades of experience as a teacher of the instrument in his position as bodhrán tutor at UCC. Seen here on the right, Murphy’s system uses arrowheads to indicate up- and down-strokes, as well as horizontal arrows to indicate lateral movement across the bodhrán head. The symbols representing up and down-strokes can be interpreted as crotchets or quavers depending on the context; a standalone symbol (usually a down-stroke) is a crotchet, whereas two tightly written symbols are quavers. A familiarity with the tune structure and rhythmic swing of Irish traditional music is assumed, as with Ó Súilleabháin’s system.


Ó Súilleabháin’s system could be described as “abstract” (Ellingson, 1992a, p. 157) in that the symbols used bear no relation to the actual movements being represented. Murphy’s system is at least partially “iconic” (Ellingson, 1992a, p. 157), since although movements of the stick are not represented in their totality, the arrowheads and arrows are suggestive of the physical movement involved. Both these notation systems are “prescriptive” (Ellingson, 1992b, p. 111), directing the reader to how sounds should be produced, rather than being descriptive of the sounds produced themselves.


Neither system is intended to be used operationally in performance (i.e. for sight-reading), but in the way that Murphy employs his system it functions particularly well as a mnemonic aid that meshes with the improvisatory creative processes of Irish traditional music. Whereas Ó Súilleabháin transcribed complete performances with his system, Murphy only ever notates one- or two-bar sections that encapsulate a short rhythmic idea. Because of their brevity, these short sections can be remembered easily, and combined in performance to extemporise larger, dynamic rhythmic structures. In this way, Murphy uses his notation system to represent “schemata”, as described by Quigley:


[...] schemata for guiding creative thinking is generally associated with models of improvisation in music and folklore. Schemata which are able to both provide "ready-made" units and serve as plans for exploratory thinking, however, have been identified as an important component of creative work in general.

(Quigley, 1993, p. 183)


My System

My notation system was developed to allow me to represent the creative process of grip switching in performance. In this view of bodhrán playing there is no longer only one up-stroke and one down-stroke. Each grip posture has a strong and a weak stroke; in the well-known Mercier grip posture these correspond to the down- and up-strokes notated by Ó Súilleabháin and Murphy. As can be seen in my journal, I experimented with various schemes, but eventually I settled on a system where an alphabet letter would be used to denote the strong/down stroke in each grip posture. This letter would then be turned upside-down to represent the corresponding weak/up stroke. In keeping with Murphy’s notation, I used ‘v’ and ‘ʌ’ to represent down- and up-strokes in the orthodox (i.e. what I term ‘Mercier’) grip posture. The scheme I developed is shown in the table below:




Ó Riada

Reverse Ó Riada


J.J. Kelly

Strong (“Down”) 












ʎ (≃v)



These letter codes are then used to annotate standard, single-line staff systems which outline basic rhythmic structure. In the manner of Ó Súilleabháin and Murphy’s systems, it is assumed that the reader will use their knowledge of the swing and tune structure of Irish traditional music to interpret the notation appropriately. As with Murphy, I use the notation to represent only small rhythmic units (up to two bars in length). Rather than attempting to transcribe entire performances, the notation is used as a mnemonic aid to represent short rhythmic sequences as schemata that can be combined to embody and extemporise larger rhythmic structures. PDF documents containing such schemata can be found in the Grip Switching section. An example of a two-bar polka sequence that switches between the Mercier, Reverse Ó Riada, and O’Donoghue grip postures is given here:

Further drawing from Murphy’s system, which represents the larger arm movements used to move the striking end of the stick across the skin, I sometimes add further annotation to show what part of the bodhrán skin is being struck. A circle is used to represent the head of the drum as it is seen from the side (i.e. as in the image on the left). A dot within the circle shows the approximate area of the skin to be struck. An example is shown below, but for my own usage I find that it is usually unnecessary for me to add this extra information, as it can be inferred from the specific combinations of strokes being used.

The letter codes denoting grip posture were also used in a table I drew in my handwritten journal (Sheehan, 2022a, p. 29/07/2022). This table is reproduced here, and attempts to represent various micro-rhythmic ornaments that I use (or that I believe might be possible to use with more practice). As above, by moving your mouse pointer over a blue letter, a video animation is revealed depicting that stroke. Clicking on the background closes the animation. 

 MercierO'DonoghueÓ RiadaReverse Ó RiadaHayesKelly
Downstroke v d r y h k
Upstroke ʌ p ɹ ʎ(≃v) ɥ ʞ
Downstroke Roll 1 vrʌ       hpɥ  
Downstroke Roll 2 vvʌ ddp rrɹ yyʎ    
Downstroke Roll 3 vʌv dpd        
Downstroke Roll 4 vʌvʌ dpdp rɹrɹ      
Downstroke Roll 5 vvrʌ ddpʞ rrɹv yyʎʌ    
Downstroke Roll 6 vrʌy          
Upstroke Roll 1 ʌyv pʞd ɹvr ʎʌy hpɥ  
Upstroke Roll 2 ʌʌv ppd ɹɹr      
Upstroke Roll 3 ʌvʌ pdp        
Upstroke Roll 4 ʌvʌv pdpd ɹrɹr      
Upstroke Roll 5 ʌʌyv pʞdd   ʎʌyy    
Upstroke Roll 6 ʌyvr          
Upstroke Roll 7 ʌyyv          
Downstroke Flam yv          
Upstroke Flam          


Table of Microrhythmic Ornaments

An example of Colm Murphy's bodhrán notation.