How Do Drummers Read Music?

Posted by Ben Heckler

Drummers need to read music just like the rest of the musicians. It may not seem as common to see a rock concert with a drummer flipping through his sheet music on a music stand, but in other contexts, orchestral and jazz (and while practicing), it is very common to see drummers reading music.

Let’s look at different contexts where drummers read music and then we’ll look at some examples of how you can learn to read music if you are a drummer.

Reading music a jazz context

Jazz music is full of improvisation, so why do drummers (or the rest of musicians for that matter) read music?

In jazz music, we typically have a ‘chart’ that tells us the structure and outline of the song. Think of it as a road map to signal where all the musicians need to go (although the musicians may take creative ways to get to the same destination).

The jazz chart has the melody (the notes that we recognize and sing along to) and the harmony (the chords that give the notes their flavor).

Now, if the drummer has never heard the song before, he will typically try to internalize all the information on this ‘chart’ as quickly as possible.

Typically, the information that is most relevant would be:

  • Tempo (90bpm, 200 bpm, etc.)
  • Time signature (4/4, 6/8, etc.)
  • Style (shuffle, blues, samba, latin, swing, up-tempo swing, etc.)
  • Form (how many measures is the song, what is the structure? AABA)

From this information, drummers can intuit how to play the song more or less. Of course, the better the drummer is at reading music, the better they can make decisions about where to hit special accents and accompany the melody/harmony).

Let’s look at an example of a famous jazz tune, Autumn Leaves, and let’s think about how a drummer would play this.

Things to notice

  • Tempo and style: On the top-left corner we have a note that says, “med. jazz”. The first part, med. or medium, refers to the tempo of the song. A medium tempo could be somewhere between 120-150 bpm. ‘Jazz’ refers to the style of playing, which for a drummer usually means a swing pattern with the ride cymbal and the hi-hat.
  • Time signature: The time signature is 4/4.
  • Form: We see that the first 8 bars are encased in brackets and have repeat symbols by them. This means we repeat them once before moving on to the next section.
  • Form: We also see that the chords have a 1st and 2nd ending, indicated by the 1 and 2 on bars 4 and 8.
  • Form: The melody/harmony of the last 8 bars of the song is almost identical to the first 8 bars. This means that we can think of this song in sections. If we call the first section A, and the second section B, then we can organize the song like this: AABA, where the first section A is repeated twice and it comes back in at the end.
  • Style: At the bottom of the page we see that a note is written: Bill Evans – Portrait in Jazz. This refers to an album called Portrait in Jazz by the jazz pianist Bill Evans, which is the reference of this chart. By listening to the version of this song on this album, we will know exactly what someone wants us to play in this song.

Many drummers, until they memorize a song, will keep their eye on a chart like this, even though it doesn’t have any drum parts written on it. Mostly, drummers are looking at the charts to not get lost. They do this by counting bars to know where they are within the song.

How do drummers read drum notation?

Reading charts is a completely different exercise than reading drum notation. Many drummers read drum notation to learn specific drum parts or to write down parts for songs they are playing to.

When practicing, drummers will read many drum parts in order to develop coordination and confidence in their playing.

Here is an excerpt from a famous book: a funky primer for the rock drummer, by Charles Dowd.

Some things to note. These are two measure exercises, which means the rhythms are meant to be played reading from left to write and then repeated.

The key to reading an exercise like this is to understand how drum notation is typically written. The ‘x’ represents a closed hi-hat sound. The lowest note represents the kick drum and the note in between represents a snare drum.

How to practice reading (learn to sight-read drums)

We can, of course, learn these exercises and play them from memory. But if a drummer wants to practice the act of reading, there are several things we can do:

  • Put on a metronome at a tempo we feel like we can comfortably read these exercises—don’t just memorize them and play them from memory!
  •  Start at exercise one, and play both bars, from left to right, 4 times. Then, without stopping, go to the next exercise without losing the beat.

The tricky part will be shifting to the next exercise without losing a beat. The goal is to get through the page without stopping. This exercise of not stopping while reading drum exercises is great for strengthing our reading abilities.

In an orchestral context

To practice reading in an orchestral context I would recommend the book “The All American Drummer” by Charley Wilcoxon. This book is simply comprised of snare drum solos, which are an excellent way to learn how to read rudiments on the fly.

Even if you play a different instrument in the orchestra this book is vital for learning drum chops and practicing reading chops.

Another advantage of this book is it works great for beginning to study in a jazz context, like the one above. Many of the drum solos that traditional drummers used in jazz are comprised of rudiments (rudiments are common sticking patterns that are played with the hands. They are very common in marching music but they translate to almost every other kind of music as well, and are essential for all drummers).

Final thoughts

Drummers need to practice reading music even when it may seem like you hardly see your favorite pop or rock drummer reading off a music stand on stage. They usually have had a ton of practice reading up until that point.

If you want to be a studio drummer, a jazz drummer, a drummer for the orchestra (this could include drumming for movies or television), you need to be able to know how to read music. Hopefully these resources will help you out, and if you have any questions be sure to shoot us an email!

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