How to Read Drum Notation

Many drummers learn to play without first learning how to read sheet music. However, there are many benefits to learning how to read drum notes. Doing so assists your learning and helps to develop you as a drummer. The drum kit, after all, is an instrument like any other; it demands the same level of respect, skill and technical ability to play well!

What Are the Benefits of Learning to Read Drum Notation?
Reading music allows you to experiment with different styles and beats more effectively. By learning how to read drum notes, you can then develop your style and progress at a faster pace. Many who have not learned how to read drum music cannot reap all of the benefits of books and drumming magazines. While reading drum music is not essential – some of the best drummers in the world cannot read drum music – it is a skill which will ultimately make you a better, more skilled drummer.

Musical Jargon
To understand how to read drum notes, you first need to understand the terms used. There are a few terms in particular that are beneficial to know.

The first one is tempo. The tempo is the pace at which you play the music. It’s not as important as other marks, as you will usually just play to keep in time with other music, however, it is useful to be aware of your rough tempo when playing. The tempo is indicated at the beginning of a sheet of music by a tempo mark. This is a single note with a number next to it. A standard tempo, for example, is 120.

All of the notes will lie on the staff, which is the five horizontal lines that run along the page. Vertical lines separate each bar. At the beginning of the staff will be two numbers – one on top of the other – which is the time signature. Next to the time signature is the drum clef. The drum clef simply indicates that the music was created for the drum kit or other non-tuned instrument. The time signature, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. The time signature features two numbers: the top number tells you what each beat is worth (note value – one beat could be quarter, half, etc) and the bottom number tells you how many beats belong in each bar.

How to Read Drum Music – The Basics
There are slight variations to reading drum music, depending on how big your drum kit is, who is writing the sheet music and which drumming instruments you are playing. However, for a standard 5-piece drum kit, most sheet music will follow the same rules. If it differs, there will typically be a key to inform you.

A note with a cross in the bottom, with the tail facing up and positioned on the top line, represents the hi-hat. This is a useful indicator of the time signature as well. If there is a circle above the note,

it means that the hi-hat should be open. Generally the hi-hat line and the bass drum line are the most crucial for developing the rhythm of a piece. They work together to drive the beat. Notes with the tails facing down, in between the bottom two lines, represent the bass drum.

You can think of the next lines representing the biggest drum first to the smallest. The floor tom notation lies between the two lines above the bass drum, or the second lines. Just above, in between the lines, is the snare drum. The second tom – if you have one – appears on the line above the snare drum. And the small tom lies between the top two lines.

Other exotic cymbals and drums are represented usually above the bar staff or in the lines that are remaining. This will always be indicated

with a drum key at the beginning.

Once you have learned how to read drum notes, it simply takes practice to be able to play and read at the same time. Try reading slightly ahead of what you are playing so you can prepare yourself mentally and physically before proceeding to the next bars. Another strategy is to read the entire script and then memorize everything. This is not always easy, but you will find that the more you play along to sheet music, the better your drumming and reading skills will become!

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Photo by Alan Gee