When it comes to playing music, notation reading is one of the important aspects of it. Instruments such as clarinets and saxophones require you to read sheet music while learning. Drums are a bit different. Since drums don’t have any melodic notes, learning by ear is what a lot of beginner drummers tend to do.
So, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on how to read drum sheet music. Let’s get to it.
The very first thing to know about drum notation and sheet music, in general, is that it’s broken down into bars. Bars are the base that everything is built up from. They hold everything together and create a sense of organization. Without bars, reading music wouldn’t work too well.
An empty bar of music looks like this:
There are a few things in this bar to take note of. The first would be the numbers. Those numbers are called a time signature.
The next would be the two vertical lines before the time signature. That is called the percussion clef. It tells you that we’re going to be reading sheet music for drums.
The last thing to take note of is the square in the middle of the bar. That’s called a rest and we’ll elaborate on that later.
Drum notation has specific placements for each drum in a bar. This has been a pretty divisive topic over the years as drummers haven’t seemed to agree on exactly what note is where. However, it has started to become more uniform recently. Just note that some drum notation may look a bit different depending on where you read it.
The basic accepted drum legend looks like this:
You need to memorize which notes are placed where. The more you read sheet music, the easier it becomes to remember. There are a few tricks to help you memorize them.
The snare drum is the main part of your drum kit. It plays the backbeat and is heard the most next to the bass drum. The snare drum is placed near the middle of the bar. So, just think that the main drum is the center of attention in a bar.
The high tom is placed on the top space of the bar. The high tom happens to be the drum with the highest pitch. Top space, top pitch.
The middle tom is the only drum that is placed on the middle of a line in the bar. That’s easy to remember since the drum has “middle” in its name.
The floor tom is the second-lowest pitch in your drum setup, meaning it’s the second-lowest note in the bar.
The bass drum is the lowest, so it gets placed right at the bottom of the bar.
Cymbals are placed near the top of the bar and their symbols are different from drums. Your hi-hat and ride cymbal are written with an ‘x’ while the crash cymbal has an ‘x’ surrounded by a circle.
That covers your basic drum sheet music key. There several other drum sounds that you can read and play, but we’ll just use these for the sake of learning in the beginning.
Modded notes are notes that are specific to the drum kit. Every drum can be played in several different ways. So, a modded note has something small on it that tells you to play that drum or cymbal in a specific way.
Let’s look at the snare drum. You can play ghost notes, cross sticks, rimshots, buzz rolls, flams, and drags.
Beginner drummers don’t use these types of notes often. You don’t need to worry about them just yet if you’re starting out. However, they frequently come into play later on.
An example of a modded note on a cymbal would be an open hi-hat. It would look like a normal hi-hat note with a small circle above it.
Modded notes are mostly related to snares and cymbals. However, you may come across a feathered bass drum. That would just look like a normal bass drum note with brackets surrounding it.
Music Notes and Values
Every note in music has a specific length that is tied to it. These note lengths help you count the distance between each new note. There are several note lengths with the most common ones in drums being quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes.
A quarter note is worth one count:
An eighth note is worth half a count:
A sixteenth note is worth a quarter of a count:
When it comes to drumming, we don’t usually play notes that are higher in value than quarter notes. To visualize how notes fit together, we can draw something called a time pyramid.
Drum sheet music consists of a combination of these note values to make grooves and fills. When reading these note values, you can count them out to make them easy to follow.
A full bar of quarter notes is counted as “1 2 3 4”
A full bar of eighth notes is counted as “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”
A full bar of sixteenth notes is counted as “1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a”
When reading drum music, you’ll see that combinations of these note values make music. Drums are a rhythmic instrument and you can make some interesting rhythms by combining quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes.
Here is a simple example:
Time signatures tell you how you should interpret a bar. It lets you know how many notes there are and how you should be counting them. The most common time signature is four over four.
The four at the bottom tells you that the bar is subdivided into quarter notes. This basically means that you should count the bar in quarter notes. The four at the top tells you just how many quarter notes.
There are several different time signatures. Another popular one would be three over four. This means that there are three quarter note counts in a bar.
Now that you understand note values, note placements, and time signatures, you should be able to read some basic drum sheet music.
Here are some examples of drum beats that are taught in beginner drum lessons because they are easy to read. These basic beats all incorporate your snare drum, bass drum, and hi-hat.
Reading basic fills is a bit trickier since you need to remember which toms are placed where on the bar. If you forget, make sure to refer back to that drum legend that we looked at earlier.
Here’s an example of a fill that incorporates the toms, bass drum, and crash cymbal:
Most drum fills aren’t that straight forward. Note placement will vary to have a more creative sound. A tastier sounding drum fill would look something like this:
The term subdivision refers to how you feel the music you’re playing. Drummers use this term more than any other musicians. As the timekeepers in the band, we think about this a lot.
Subdivisions explain how you group notes together in a bar. You don’t need to play all the notes in a subdivision, but you can count them in that way. The basic subdivisions would be quarter notes, 8th notes, 8th note triplets, 16th notes, 16th note triplets, and 32nd notes.
Here are some grooves in different subdivisions:
Once you understand the concept of subdividing rhythms, reading music becomes extremely easy.
Writing your own drum sheet music has become easier than ever in recent times thanks to some highly accessible notation software. If you have a computer and an internet connection, you can download a few free programs to get notating.
One fantastic program that is made specifically for drums is called Aered. This free software allows you to easily write out drum music in different subdivisions. It has a great playback feature and it isn’t hard to learn.
Another good program is MuseScore. MuseScore is a free notation program that is for all instruments. Many composers use it to make full-length scores. It’s a bit tricky to learn, but it allows you to write out some complex drum parts.
Lastly, GrooveScribe is a great tool for beginners or anyone looking to write out a drum pattern quickly. It’s a browser-based program that allows you to insert rhythms without needing any knowledge of note values. The interface does it all for you. The downside to GrooveScribe is that you can’t write out full songs.
Should every drummer know how to read drum sheet music?
This is a popular debate with a definite answer. As we said previously, drum kits are one of those instruments where you don’t actually need to know anything about notation to learn to play. Thousands of drummers have learned to play drumming patterns by ear without knowing a thing about drum sheet music.
However, drum music is a great tool for learning. There are so many educational books with musical ideas that are expressed through notation. You need to have the ability to read to be able to learn them. You probably won’t find any educational books without drum sheet music in them.
If you’re planning on becoming a drum teacher, the ability to read music will vastly improve your drum lessons. It becomes easy for students to progress when they have a bunch of drum beats and fills clearly laid out for them. A typical drum student will have a file to put copies of drum sheet music in.
The final benefit of having the ability to read drum notes would be for doing session and studio work. If you’re going to be a professional drummer, you might find yourself overloaded with a huge amount of songs to learn for a gig. Having drum charts will help you remember everything while playing. Drummers will often write out drum scores for themselves, helping them remember every little detail of a song.
No drummer has ever regretted learning how to read music. So yes, every drummer should know how to read notation.
How hard can reading music get?
You might be pretty good at reading basic notes and wonder – how hard does it actually get? The answer to this depends on your skills as a drummer. Certain styles of music will have sheet music that is harder to read just because the actual drum parts are harder to play.
Styles like latin and jazz have busy drum parts that make the sheet music look very intense. Here’s an example of a latin groove that is fairly busy:
One of the most challenging things to play on the drums are polyrhythms. Polyrhythms are seperate rhythms that are layered onto each other. These look quite confusing when notated out as you have to read two things at once.
Here’s an example of a basic polyrhythm:
Tips for reading music
The best way to improve is to teach. Most drum teachers will tell you that they got better at reading music when they had to start explaining it to others. So, pull out a drum chart and try to explain how it works to someone. That will greatly boost your reading abilities.
You need to be reading constantly to improve your skill. A great way of doing that is by finding a new song to learn every week. Find the notation for it online and then set a goal to learn it as fast as possible. This will improve your sight reading ability.
The final tip we have is to learn to enjoy the process. If you decide that you hate reading music, it’s just going to become a chore. Enjoying the process will make it a fun experience. Try to balance reading with exploring and being creative. Reading all the notes can be restrictive, so read some grooves and create your own as well.
Drum notes are actually pretty easy to learn when compared to other instruments. You don’t need to worry about key signatures and sharps or flats. With drum notes being so straightforward, there’s no excuse not to learn.
If you want to practice your reading abilities, there are countless free drum scores on the web. Just type it in on a search bar and maybe your favorite song will come up. Like any skill, the more you read, the better you’ll get. A great way to improve is to write out your own drumming patterns.
Hopefully, you’ve learned just how important drum music notation can be. Gaining the ability to read will truly be life-changing.