Learning Percussion On The KeyMusician Keyboard

The quickest, and easiest way to learn to play percussion (drum-type instruments) on the KeyMusician Keyboard, is to switch to the Drums pane, and play along with audio files of the music of your favorite bands. Just listen to what their drummer does, and play along with it, imitating it as best you can.

You’ll enjoy the music, and learn by imitating the best in the business. And you don’t have to know a single note of music to do it!

Picture of the KeyMusician Keyboard as part of a drum-set.
Unlike playing melodic instruments along with the music of others, when using percussion instruments, the key-signature doesn’t matter, so you don’t have to go through the process of figuring out the key-signature.

Being able to play percussion, allows you to create a rhythm track for your pieces, which adds a lot to the sound. In fact, many popular music pieces use a rhythm track as the foundation of the piece.

Here’s a sample audio file, of my playing percussion on the KMK, with just a typing keyboard, added to my “Turning Toward Home” piece.

It’s not as good as it could be, due to the rhythm track being added later, rather than the melodic parts being based on the rhythm track, but it does illustrate what can be done.

I use techniques I will explain later in this article.

Turning Toward Home, with Percussion Track

Things To Take Care Of First

In learning to play percussion on the KMK, I came to the realization that for playing percussion, you really need to eliminate latency (the delay between hitting a note-key, and hearing its sound), to succeed at doing this. Although I could play percussion using the Java Sound Synthesizer and its considerable latency on Windows, it was very hard to do, and error-prone.

Don’t be a glutton for punishment – get rid of the latency!

So read the Member Pages on “Improving Your Instrument”, and Improving Your Windows/Mac OS X/Linux/Chromebook System”, to learn how to do this. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did!

On Windows, it means you’ll be playing a VST instrument, on a VST host, such as Cubase, or Cantabile.

On Mac OS X, it means you’ll be playing Logic Pro, Cubase, or Garage Band.

On Linux, you’ll be playing Qsynth or Rosegarden, using JACK.

On Chromebook, you’ll be playing Qsynth, using JACK if possible.

Or you could be playing a separate hardware synthesizer, connected by a MIDI interface, on any of the operating systems.

Don’t worry – our documentation and KMK Newsletter articles tell you how to do it.

All of these methods can reduce latency to where it isn’t a problem in playing percussion on the KMK.

The Percussion Instruments, and the Keys for Playing Them

Here is a table showing the percussion instruments defined by the General-MIDI standard, including what qwerty-keyboard key you press to play each instrument:

General-MIDI Percussion Instrument Keys

KMK Qwerty Key

Percussion Instrument Name


` (acute accent)

(nothing there)

Same as the ‘=’ sign (Maracas)


Open Triangle


Mute Triangle


Open Cuica

Sad dog


Mute Cuica



Low Wood Block

Clip-clop sound


Hi Wood Block

Clip-clop sound




Long Guiro

Washboard sound


Short Guiro


Long Whistle


Short Whistle



Short rattle sound



Long rattle sound


Low Agogo

Low, short bell sound


High Agogo

High, short bell sound


Low Timbale

Steel drum sound


High Timbale

Steel drum sound


Low Conga


Open Hi Conga


Mute Hi Conga


Low Bongo


Hi Bongo


Ride Cymbal 2

A quiet cymbal, on which rhythms are tapped



Wash-board sound


Crash Cymbal 2




Splash Cymbal




Ride Bell


Chinese Cymbal


Ride Cymbal 1

A quiet cymbal, on which rhythms are tapped


High Tom

H for High Tom


Crash Cymbal 1


Hi-Mid Tom


Low-Mid Tom

L for Low-Mid Tom


Open Hi-Hat

A quiet cymbal sound

Low Tom


Pedal Hi-Hat

A quiet muted cymbal


High Floor Tom


Closed Hi-Hat


Low Floor Tom

I use this a lot.


Electric Snare


Hand Clap


Acoustic Snare

I use this a lot.


Side Stick

Hitting a drumstick on the rim of a snare drum


Bass Drum 1


Acoustic Bass Drum

KMK qwerty-key column assumes the 'Z0' keyboard layout, which is the most common U.S. keyboard layout

Note: If you play percussion on Garage Band, it is not General-MIDI compliant, so you just play the different keys (starting with the Z key), and listen to each sound. The same is true for many VST percussion instruments. Just play the keys, and remember the sound that goes with each key.

The table above has a lot of different percussion instruments. So what do you use, and for what?

The most commonly used instruments, are at the lower end of the table.

The Bass Drum sounds are not tonal, and are a kind of ‘thud’ sound, best reproduced with good speakers. The Z and the X key sounds are so similar, that if you wanted a bass-drum roll, you could alternate two fingers on the two keys.

The C key (Side Stick) sound is something you might use to establish a beat for the rest of the band to come in on. The Hand Clap (B key) is similar, but louder.

The V key (acoustic snare) is a sound you’ll probably use a lot. If you need to drum two fingers on snare drum sounds, you might also use the N key (electric snare). Remember the V key – you’ll use it a lot.

The ‘Tom’ drums, in low to high order, are the M, period, apostrophe, L, K, and H keys. I like to use the M key, followed by the L key, for a sort of heart-beat sound sequence. These drums are tonal to a degree, and some will sound better than others with different melody notes. Remember the M key – you’ll use it much of the time.

The J and W keys are cymbal crashes. It’s good to use them for emphasis, and flourishes, at times in a piece.

Remember the R key, for Ride-Cymbal. It’s useful for unobtrusively tapping a rhythm in a quiet section of music.

The E key is nice to add a long washboard sound occasionally in the music, as a sort of flourish.

The back-space key, is a long rattle sound, and the equal-sign (=) next to it, is a short rattle sound. You might do a sequence of equal keys, with the back-space key (possibly simultaneously) at times for emphasis.

The 5 key and the 6 key (wood block sounds), used in succession, probably repeated, produce a clip-clop sort of sound.

Those are the keys that stood out for me, and I used a lot.

But there are a lot more you can experiment with. Remember the first rule of improvisation: If you like it, it’s good.

Where the letter-keys are already labeled (unlike a MIDI keyboard), the letters can help you remember which key is for the particular percussion sound you want.

Different Drum-Kits

You choose which drum-kit to use in the “Instrument” drop-box, at the lower right of the “Drums” performance pane.

Usually, the instrument sounds in the drum-kits are the same, but can have very different sounds. For example, compare “24‑Electronic” with “0‑Standard”.

But the instruments are not always the same. If you try “48‑Orchestra Kit”, the sounds start out using the same keys, but the bass-drum and cympal-crash sounds are much more impressive. And the keys M through D, are different tones of a Kettle-Drum (Timpani), instead of the high and low toms.

As I tried different things, I decided for the most part, to use the “0‑Standard” drum kit, and I recommend it for learning to play along with your favorite bands. So start out using the “0‑Standard” drum kit (you might want to change it now if it’s different).

Loud And Soft – Expressive Drumming

For playing percussion, it is essential that you can play some sounds loudly, and others softly – even alternating loud and soft between successive notes.

This presents a problem in using a typing-keyboard, because it doesn’t pass any information about how hard the keys are hit. But where a typing keyboard is what most people have, we need ways to do loud and soft with it.

The easiest way of doing some notes loud, and others soft, is to play multiple percussion sounds simultaneously for loud notes.

For example, you can press the V and the N keys together (acoustic snare, and electric snare) for a loud snare-drum hit, or just the V key for a normal snare-drum hit. You can get even more loudness difference if you hit the C (side stick) or B (hand clap) at the same time as the V (acoustic snare), though it changes the sound.

You can hit the Z and X key together for a louder bass drum sound (though it’s not a lot of difference). You get a better, bigger difference, by hitting the M-key (low floor tom) and period-key (high floor tom) together for loud, and just one of them for normal volume.

You can alternate a loud and normal cymbal crash, by pressing the J and W key together, or separately.

You can alternate a loud rattle and a normal rattle, by hitting the equal-sign key (maracas) or back-space key (cabasa) together, or separately.

Pressing multiple percussion-instrument keys together, is probably the easiest way of controlling loudness.

You can also repeatedly press the Left-Control-Key to reduce the velocity (loudness), or repeatedly press the Right-Control-Key to increase the velocity (loudness). This is useful when both hands are pressing keys in the main keyboard, and it’s hard to reach the numeric keypad keys.

The same thing applies for the Left-Alt-Key (for decreasing volume), or the Right-Alt-Key (for increasing volume).

Another way to control the loudness is to use the numeric keypad to control the loudness.

If you press the Pause/Break key (or F14 key on a Mac keyboard), it toggles the numeric keypad between being used for playing chords, or for controlling dynamics (loudness). The Num-Keypad window, toggled for controlling dynamics, looks something like this:

Screen-shot of the dynamics window, with half-loud (mezzo forte) selected.
In playing percussion along with rock music, I found the numeric keypad most useful for setting the overall loudness of the drumming I was doing, to match with quieter, or louder parts of the piece. It was useful enough to reach over with my left hand to occasionally set the loudness level.

Using the numeric keypad, you set the dynamics (loudness) level instantly to any of the dynamics markings in music, matching the marking shown on the Dynamics Pad window. These keys (1 through 9) affect the MIDI velocity control (and its slider on the performance pane).

The '5' key (reset) is special, in that it restores the Dynamics Pad to the values present when the performance pane was entered, or that were present the last time Control-Enter was pressed, or the “Save” button of the performance pane was clicked. This saves the settings in memory, but not on disk. The 5 key affects both the Velocity slider, and the Volume slider.

The keys on the right-side of the numeric keypad (“-”, “+”, and “Enter”) and bottom (“0”, and “.”), of the numeric keypad affect the Volume slider.

The Velocity slider changes affect the loudness of all subsequent (future) notes, but not any note currently sounding.

The Volume slider changes affect the loudness of any notes currently sounding, as well as subsequent (future) notes. It's like turning up (or down) the volume knob on a radio.

They both affect volume in their own way. Each adds-to (but doesn't cancel) the other.

Any time you are playing the KeyMusician Keyboard, but don't have to play chords, it is useful to use the Dynamics pad window, allowing better control of the loudness (dynamics) of the music you are playing. When playing the Drums performance pane, the Dynamics Pad is almost essential.

With it, you can do expressive drumming – even alternating between loud and soft drum-hits.

The “sfz” (sforzando), “<” (crescendo), and “>” (decrescendo) keys change the volume slider gradually (or quickly) over time as you play, allowing you to do smooth, gradual, volume changes.

The “/” (slow) or “*” (fast) numeric-keypad keys control whether the crescendo and decrescendo changes take place slowly (over 4 seconds) or fast (over two seconds). The sforzando key is always fast (about 1 second duration).

The “0” (louder) and “.” (softer) keys allow you to toggle to a louder, or softer, volume level (while selected). You hit them again to un-toggle them, returning to the former volume level.

Using the Dynamics Pad keys to set the loudness level called-for in the music is much easier than consistently drumming at a certain force on a MIDI drum-pad, in my experience. And you can change them quickly enough to alternate between loud and soft drum-hits (with a little practice).

When you switch to a performance pane while the Dynamics Pad displayed, the dynamics values (Velocity and Volume sliders) are used to select the corresponding keys of the Dynamics Pad window, and are the values returned-to when hitting the reset key.

If you want different values, change them, and then press the Shift-Enter keys (or click the “Save” button on the performance pane), and those new values will be remembered, even if you switch to another pane, and then come back to the pane you changed.


Here is an example of using the R-key (Ride Cymbal 2) to tap out a rhythm in a quiet section of a piece.

Ride-Cymbal Quiet Rhythm

Here is an example of using the Z-key (Bass Drum) on a down-beat, with a syncopated V-key (Snare Drum hit) on the up-beat.

Bass-Drum Snare-Drum Syncopation

Here is an example of using the M-key (Low Floor Tom), followed by the L-key (Low Mid Tom), to produce a heart-beat sound.

Heart-Beat Sound Using M and L Keys

Here is an example of using the Equal-key (Maracas) and Backspace-key (Cabasa) to produce an accented rattle rhythm.

Accented Rattle Rhythm

Here is an example of using the 5-key and the 6-key (Wood Block sounds) to produce a clip-clop sound.

Clip-Clop Sound On Wood Blocks

Play Percussion Along With Your Favorite Bands

Armed with all of this knowledge, you’re ready to use an audio player to play music of your favorite band, and play drums along with it on the KMK, emulating what the drummer does in the recorded music.

If you can use a smart-phone player for the recorded music, it will avoid conflicting with what you’re doing on your computer.

On Windows, audio players often don’t work at the same time as VST instruments (using ASIO device drivers). Similarly, on Linux, using Qsynth and JACK to reduce latency, your the computer’s audio player must also be set up to use JACK, and audio coming from an Internet browser can’t use JACK at all.

Playing audio files from a non-computer source avoids such complications.

As you start out, remember you don’t have to play all the drum sounds. Start out with things you can focus on, and learn the patterns they use. As you get better, try playing more of it.

When I was learning to do this, there were sometimes fast, repeated drum-beats that I couldn’t keep up with, yet I could keep up with every other beat of it, and it still sounded good.

So give it a try. Maybe you will become a drummer. You might as well try it, since it comes along with the rest of the KeyMusician Keyboard.

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