This lesson was made to offer you a quick overview of how to read drum notation symbols.
You can consider this page as a drum-key or legend for all the various drum set voices that you play within beats, fills, and solo patterns.
You can refer back to this page if you are ever unsure about what is to be played within certain sheet music exercises.
Having the ability to read drum sheet music has actually been among the greatest properties in my drumming profession so far!
Seriously, it does not matter whether I walked into the rehearsal space of a new band or joined an orchestra. Once they saw that I could sit down in front of a paper (and a drum set obviously) and just begin playing with them—they were amazed.
I really want to encourage you to learn to read drum sheet music. There are so many drummers who don’t know how to read and are missing out on a whole wealth of information they could be learning or reading.
Once you can read music, this will make it a lot easier for you to learn about drums, memorize rhythms, be picked by a band, etc.
Many individuals who want to learn to read drum notation get discouraged by the way that drum notation looks. It may look complicated initially but once you break it apart it is quite simple.
In the very first measure (the part that is divided by a line) there are 4 notes.
At the beginning of the measure, there are two numbers on top of each other. This is called a time signature.
In a time signature, the top number informs us that there are 4 beats in a bar.
The bottom number tells us that the beats are quarter note beats.
So if a whole measure can hold 4 notes that means that each of those 4 notes must be called a quarter note. That is what these 4 black notes are in the first measure.
They are equally spaced and should sound even. Take a listen to how they sound below at 80 bpm.
Half notes have more space in them so only two of them can fit in a measure. Since drummers can’t hold a note, we simply play them by hitting the drum.
If we want we can also write a quarter note with a rest in between. A rest signifies that we would stop playing but since drummers don’t hold notes, it is the same phrase. Here is how it sounds.
Notice in the sheet above how many measures have the ‘rest’ symbol in them. For drummers, it is very common to see quarter note rests (and eighth note rests which look a bit different).
Now logically a whole note is a note that occupies the whole measure. In drumming language, it means we just hit once on the first note of the measure—and that’s it.
When we are reading drum notation we don’t often find half notes and whole notes. Sometimes we do, but most of our exercises will be a combination of quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes (and triplets but we will get there).
Eighth notes and sixteenth notes are self-explanatory at this point—either 8 of them or 16 of them can fit in one single measure.
This means that so far the sixteenth note is the fastest sounding note we have come across so far.
Here are eighth notes at 80 bpm.
And here are sixteenth notes at 80 bpm.
We can set a metronome that will dictate how fast we play the above page.
The metronome will reveal to you how quick the pulse is, whilst the time signature will show you the grouping of the beat.
So far we have been listening to the examples at 80 bpm, so let’s put a metronome on there (go to Google and type in ‘Free Metronome’ in order to get something quick).
Now take a look at which line/space the note is on—this will inform you which drum to play. As we’ve said before we will play all the notes on the snare drum.
Then take a look at the note lengths before you begin to play. We always want to read ahead, and know what is coming to us. Before I play a piece of music I always skim it over and take a look at what is coming in front of me.
There are no accents, which means that all the notes should be at the same velocity.
Here are the first 8 bars of the musical page from above that are played out loud. Check yourself to make sure you are playing it correctly.
As you can see it is not terribly hard to start reading music!
Once you play this exercise a couple of times from start to finish you will become very accustomed to reading whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes.
This is the basis for a strong musical understanding of rhythm.
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.