How to Read Drums NotesPosted by Ben Heckler
This lesson is intended to offer you a quick-overview of drum notation signs. Normally when you read drum music there will be a key which tells you which notes are supposed to be played where.
You can think about 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 don’t know how to play certain sheet music.
Basics of reading notation
If you are unsure about what is even an eighth note or a sixteenth note, or quarter-note rest, then it is best to get some basic knowledge under our belts.
Let’s look at this diagram below to see how each note looks and what its value is.
(Note: In the UK they use the terminology of quavers, crochets and semiquavers. As I am American, I will use the language of eighth notes, quarter notes and sixteenth notes).
The first thing to do when looking at a note is to examine its shape (filled or unfilled, does it have a stem?) and whether or not it is connected to another note (or has flag on it).
These are the primary distinctions between symbols.
In this image, we can see that in one measure of 4/4, we can fit a certain amount of each note type (1 whole note, two half notes, 4 quarter notes, etc.
Now, just like we have notes signifying when to play, we have notes signifying when to NOT play. These are called rests and they look like this.
Okay so knowing this, let’s practice a little bit.
When a drummer counts off the band and says the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4… what note value is he using?
Most likely it is quarter notes.
Music is divided into measures in order to organize it on sheet music, and given that most music is in 4/4, (4/4 means that the measure is made up of 4 quarter notes), we can easily know where we are when we count.
How to read drum set music
Knowing a little bit about rhythm is helpful, and will only become more useful as we go on. But right now I want to show you an example.
Here are the four quarter notes we were talking about before. (Listen to the examples by clicking the ‘play’ arrow button).
We can adjust the tempo faster or slower to hear how the quarter notes (which are evenly spaced apart) will speed up or slow down.
Listen to the file, what instrument do you hear? There is no real reason why that particular note (F4 on a treble clef) means a bass drum. Unlike piano, guitar or any harmonic instrument, there is no 100% universal notation for drumming. However, there are a lot of reoccurring standardizations for drum notation that we will get into.
Usually, if you are studying out of a drum book they will give you a drum notation key that looks something like this.
A good way to think about this is we are organizing the drumset by sounds going from lowest to highest. Let’s go through each instrument one by one.
Normally the bass drum will be one of the lowest notes you read. This note will be a note that is filled in (contrary to some of the ‘X’s that you see). F4 is a good place to put it since you can fit the whole four-piece kit on the spaces of the musical staff.
The snare drum will usually be higher than the bass drum but we still want to leave space in for a floor tom between the snare and the bass drum.
The snare drum is also not as high as the hi-hat. A good place for the snare drum is C5 on the musical staff.
The hi-hat is the highest of our instruments so far so we will put it on the top of the line. Usually, you will put an ‘X’ as the note head instead of a circle. This is to indicate that it is a cymbal.
We can also put an ‘o’ on top of the hi-hat to mean an open hi-hat. An open hi-hat means that you hit the hi-hat with a stick while the hats are partially open to get a ‘washy’ sound.
Finally, we can also use an ‘X’ on the bottom of the music staff to mean the stomping of the hi-hats together with the feet.
The ride cymbal also has an ‘X’ as the note head since it is a cymbal too. It can be distinguished by being put on another line or sometimes drummers just write ‘ride’ above it.
Toms are usually placed on either side of the snare drum. We usually imagine that the high tom is higher-pitched than the snare drum, and the low tom is lower-pitched than the snare drum.
If you have two high toms you usually would put them above the snare drum.
Sometimes the crash cymbal is notated just like the hi-hat or ride cymbal except it either is circled, on another line, or has a ‘tail’ written above it.
It is good to practice reading and writing notation
Drum notation is best learned by reading and writing. Buy a book (or read our blog!) and find great exercises to start learning how to read drum notation, and when you feel ready, write your own exercises!
Here are some of our articles where you can see drum notation in action:
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.