You’ve bought your first acoustic or electronic drum kit. What’s next?
Learning to read music is one of the most satisfying and rewarding things you can do as an aspiring musician or hobbyist. It is in no way essential but there are many advantages. Good reading skills make it possible to play entire songs without hearing them previously. There are also many benefits with writing music that allow ideas to be stored quickly and easily without the need for extraordinary memory skills or a recording device.
Learning to read music for drums is similar to any other pitched instrument. There are a few discrepancies, such as note pitch and note length but in general, the same principles apply. Take your time with each section to ensure that you fully grasp the concept before attempting to continue on. At first your skills may be slow and arduous but with time they will enhance greatly.
The first records of musical notation date back to around 2000 BC
The legend here refers to the instruction at the beginning of each piece which shows us where each drum lies on the staff. The staff is the name for the set of five lines which is typically used in written music. When it comes to drums and percussion there are no hard and fast rules for instrument positioning. This legend below gives a good example of how most drum parts are notated:
Pay particular attention to the large black dots. These dots are called noteheads. Quite often they are attached to a ‘stem’, but not always. The stem in this case protrudes upwards above the staff or below the staff, depending on the position of the notehead. As you can see the notehead is positioned on, above or below each line to indicate different drums and cymbals. It is typical to use an “X” when dealing with cymbals as this makes it easier to distinguish when reading complex parts. Likewise, certain percussion instruments can use alternate symbols for convenience.
The above image shows a very common time signature. The time signature in this case is “4/4”. That is pronounced “four, four”. You simply say the top number followed by the bottom number. “Four, four” means there are four quarter notes to each bar. The bar is the name for the section of staff which is sectioned off with a vertical line. As you can see in the image above, there are two bars.
The first bar contains four quarter notes. Quarter notes are sometimes called crotchets. Below is a list of note length types and their alternate names:
- Quarter note: Crotchet (one stem, no tail)
- Eighth note: Quaver (one stem, one tail)
- Sixteenth note: Semiquaver (one stem, two tails)
Taking another look at the image above and we can see that in the second bar it is made up of four different symbols. These symbols are quarter note “rests”. Rests simply mean to not play for a selected duration. Pay attention to this symbol as it will crop up again. We will return to rests in full later.
When counting this bar, we can simply count “1, 2, 3, 4” along with each quarter note.
Note lengths in drum music are determined by the stem and tail attached. As we saw above, the quarter note has a stem but it does not have a tail. The tail is the small flag-like feature at the end of the stem. Below is an example of a bar of eighth notes (quavers):
Notice how the notes are grouped into two groups of four. In total per bar there are 8 notes. The tail in this case is the small line that joins the first note to the second, and the second to the third, and so on and so forth.
Want to try your hand at writing music? You can print your own manuscript paper from blank templates online.
To get a better idea of the function of eighth notes, let’s count along with them:
When we contrast this with quarter notes we see that eighth notes occupy exactly half the duration of quarter notes. In a bar of 4/4 timing, there are 4 quarter notes and 8 eighth notes. It makes sense, right?
Count along with this pattern: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” etc.
This next example shows eighth notes combined with eighth note rests. Eighth note rests look a little like a “7”:
The “C” at the start of the piece stands for “common time” which is shorthand for 4/4.
When we examine the count for this pattern we notice that not all numbers are counted. On count “2” there is an eighth note rest. When we count aloud it is custom to count the pattern played, and to leave out the rests. This gives us a better idea of the notated rhythm.
As we’ve seen by now, music is made up from different note types and note lengths. A quarter note is exactly twice as long as an eighth note. We can also go smaller than eighth notes. A sixteenth note or semiquaver contains two tails on its stem. See the example below to observe how sixteenth notes look when joined together:
In this case we have four groups of four sixteenth notes. The grouping here is simply to make the piece more readable. The typical count for sixteenth notes is “1 e and a” etc.
Drum Set Notation
Next let’s look at how this musical notation looks when applied to the drum set. The beat below shows a simple rock beat in 4/4:
First let us examine the instruments involved. On the top we have a count which outlines an eighth note pattern: ”1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” etc.
This count directly outlines the instrument on the top line of the staff, the hi-hat. If you’re wondering why this is the hi-hat, go back to the section at the start which deals with the drum legend and positioning.
As you will notice the hi-hat pattern is constructed of 8 eighth notes. These eighth notes are connected by their tails and split into groups of 4 notes. The stems in this case point upwards. The reason for this is all to do with readability.
Examining the notes below the hi-hat and we can see that we are dealing with a snare and a bass drum. The bass drum sits above the bottom line while the snare sits above the third line up. Both stems point down.
In some cases stems will point up or down, or even a mixture of the two. This is nothing too important and really depends on the structure of the piece. Quite often the decision to position stems above or below is down to neatness.
Next we will look at positioning stems above the staff only.
This image shows a regular funk/rock beat with the stems positioned above the staff:
This beat combines eighth notes and sixteenth notes to create a syncopated pattern. Let’s start with the count first.
“1 and-a-2 and 3 and 4 and”
This count starts out as a simple eighth note count but incorporates sixteenth notes. As we saw previously, consecutive sixteenth notes are counted “1 e and a 2 e and a” and so on.
In this case we are not playing all four sixteenth notes per beat. In fact we are only playing the first, the third, and the fourth sixteenth notes of beat 1.
This gives us “1 and a” instead of “1 e and a”.
Playing this beat on the kit requires some coordination between hands and feet. The hi-hat plays strict eighth notes. The snare plays the back beat on counts “2” and “4”. Finally the bass drum plays on:
The “a of 1”
The “and of 2”
The “and of 3”
It’s extremely important to pay attention to the tails here. The tails, or lack of tails, let us know the duration of each note.
Starting with beat 1, we have an eighth note extending up from the staff over both a hi-hat and a bass drum stroke. The tail here connects to a sixteenth note, which is represented by two horizontal tails. The second hi-hat and the following bass drum are both sixteenth notes.
In total, for beat 1 we have:
One eighth note and two sixteenth notes. This makes up the duration of one quarter note.
The rest of the bar is simply made up of eighth notes.
Drums and percussion have their own clef, which looks like a vertical rectangle at the start of the piece.
We touched on rests earlier. Rests are there to indicate when not to play. Like notes, you can have rests of different note values. Below are some rests and an explanation of their note value:
Whole note rest (duration of 4 quarter notes):
Half note rest (duration of 2 quarter notes):
Quarter note rest:
Eighth note rest:
Sixteenth note rest:
As with notes, you can combine rests on the one bar should you need to:
Ties indicate when to join one note into the next note. They are indicated with a long curved line above or below the notehead which leads to another notehead. In drumming terms you effectively only have to play the first note. Here is an example of a rhythm using ties:
In both bars above, the third note is not played as it is preceded by a tie each time.
You don’t see ties used as often in drum notation nowadays as often rests are preferred. They are still useful to know about as sometimes you might need to understand the written rhythm of a pitched instrument that uses ties.
Up to now the only time signature we have used in examples has been 4/4. This is arguably one of the most popular and common of all time signatures today. There are many other time signatures, and especially as a drummer it pays to have a grasp of them.
2/4 is just like 4/4 only the bar length is exactly half in length. 3/4 has three pulse counts to the bar. You will hear this rhythm in songs such as waltzes. Continuing the theme, 5/4 and 7/4 have five and seven pulses respectively.
The symbol in bar 2 that looks like a “%” means to repeat the previous bar.
There are also many time signatures which use eighth notes. 12/8 is a common time signature and is often used when notating certain blues patterns. In the case of the 12/8 blues, the beat is split into four groups of 3. A drummer might typically play the bass drum on count “1” and “7”, and the snare drum on beats “4” and “10”, while keeping time on the ride cymbal with each eighth note.
With time signatures that use eighth notes, sometimes the feel will be split into groups of two or groups of three, or even a mixture of both.
This next example uses eighth notes grouped in threes. Notice the where the tails join:
In rare cases you might encounter time signatures with sixteenth notes – 19/16 for example. In this case, and as with eighth note examples, the grouping of the pattern will be determined by the grouping of the note heads. You can group bunches of sixteenth notes into groups of 4 or 6 easily and this helps the reader understand where the pulse emphasis should be.
Other Important Symbols
There are many, many symbols used with written music that indicate different nuances to be played. For example, if you see a symbol that looks like a “v” over a notehead, this means to accent the note. Simply, play it at a higher volume than a normal note.
In a similar vein, the symbol “.” when placed over a note means to shorten it. This is commonly referred to as “staccato”. You can play a cymbal staccato by muting it with your hand directly after striking it.
Sometimes you will encounter this symbol “.” not over the notehead but in front of the notehead. This is an important feature of written music. It means that the reader should take the value of the note and add another half on. So if you take a standard quarter note, this equals the duration of two eighth notes. A quarter note with the “.” symbol placed just after it means that now it has the duration of three eighth notes. You can use this symbol with any notehead to increase the value by one half.
You may already have encountered rudimental drumming notation. Much of this drum sheet music comes with suggested stickings above the staff. This is a common way of informing the player as to the best way of approaching difficult patterns and passages. A snare drum solo could be interpreted many different ways if it comes without any sticking suggestions. You could start with either hand, or use double strokes instead of singles. With the aid of sticking suggestions you can play the piece as intended. It is not uncommon to see sticking marked out on drum kit sheet music too as quite often patterns could be played in various ways.
Sticking usually consists of simple “R” or “L” symbols above the staff. These naturally stand for “right” and “left” respectively. Certain drum sheet music will make use of both uppercase letters and lowercase letters. This is to distinguish between accents and normal strokes.
Learning to read drum sheet music should be fun and interesting. The basics of reading are quite easy to get to grips with. Of course some notation can be daunting but it is only with solid practice that these things become easier and eventually second nature.
It’s important to put in consistent practice if you want to keep your reading skills for life. It’s very easy to practice reading in many situations. If you take long bus or train journeys you can use this time to familiarize yourself with the many note shapes and values.
After a short time you should start to learn to recognize the common patterns and note clusters. It’s quite easy to look a piece of drum sheet music and determine whether it is to be played on the hi-hat or ride cymbal, or some other instrument. If a piece contains any unusual percussion items, this will be explained in the drum legend at the start of the piece.
Likewise it is easy to spot common patterns such as sixteenth note drum rolls or eighth note hi-hat patterns. The clue is always in the stem and the amount of tails adjoining to each notehead.
There are many online resources where you can download drum sheet music examples to enhance your skills. Use your spare time to become familiar with the form and you will be reading up to speed in no time at all.
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