The Drummer’s Guide To Music Theory: Essential Knowledge For Every Musician

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Music theory is a set of rules and guidelines that musicians use to create music. These theories are structured by the interrelationships between notes, chords, scales, and rhythm.

Music theory can be very in-depth, and there are many different theories that exist. Some theorists have more prominent theories than others, which can sometimes lead to controversy.

For this article, we will be discussing the basic music theory every drummer should know. This includes notation symbols, notes on a staff, chords, chord transitions, scales, drum beats, and basic rhythm patterns.

Not all of these concepts will be for every drummer- some may only apply to drum set players- but all of these concepts are essential knowledge for every musician.


The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

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Chords are a combination of notes played together. Chords are typically built off of root notes, and other notes are added to them to create different chords.

There are different types of chords that can be built off of every musical key. These include: minor chords, dominant chords, augmented chords, and diminished chords. Each of these has their own distinct sound due to the different notes that make them up.

Music theorists have created formulas for all of these chords so that you do not have to remember all of the different ones. These theories use numbers and ratios to find the right sizes for these chords.

These theories also describe how to switch between chords smoothly using techniques like re-positioning fingers or leaving fingers on the instrument unchanged while changing the note being played.


The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

A scale is a series of notes that musicians use to create a melody. Musicians choose specific scales to create specific moods and genres of music.

Scales are organized by notes. There are many different scales, but the most common are the seven note scales: natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, major, jazz minor, 3-note per octave scale, and pentatonic.

Some scales have additional notes that do not fit into any defined notes. These are called superfluous notes. They can be found between two normal notes or may be the last note in the scale.

Using scales in music helps musicians create continuity and structure in their music.

Dominant seventh chords

The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

Dominant seventh chords are one of the most popular chord structures in music. They are typically found in jazz and rock music, however.

They are called dominant seventh chords because they are built off of the V7 chord in the natural minor scale. The dominant seventh chord adds a fourth and a fifth note to the V7 chord, changing its tonal quality.

There are many variations of dominant seventh chords, some more complex than others. The simplest dominant seventh chord is called the half-diminished 7th chord. This chord contains just five notes: root, third, flat fifth, seventh, and octave.

Music theory nerds can have fun figuring out all of the different kinds of dominant seventh chords! There are quite a few, but some other common ones include augmented-five/sevens and minor-seven/ninebs.

Key signatures

The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

Key signatures are the basic building blocks of music theory. Music is typically written in the C major key, which means that most songs are composed in a set of notes starting with the note C and ending with the note C again.

All music is made up of notes and chords. Notes are the individual tones that make up a song and chords are groups of notes that sound nice together.

Music is created using what are called scales. Scales are groups of notes that go from low to high, with each note being a certain frequency. A scale can be built off of one key signature.

For example, if a song is written in the C major key, all of the notes are based on the note C and all of the chords used in the song will be based on the chord C. All other notes used will just be transitioning notes between the notes in the chord or note C.


The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

A cadence is a specific type of musical phrase that has a specific function. Cadences are used to formally end a musical phrase, section, or piece. There are many different cadences, some of which are dominant in music theory while others are not.

The dominant cadence types are: Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian. These names come from the seven notes in the scale. For example, the Lydian cadence uses the fourth note up from the bottom of the scale as its top note, so it is played as a fourth note instead of a fifth note.

These cadences can be used to end a piece or section, or can be interrupted by another music that transitions into it.


A rhythm is a pattern of repetition of musical elements. Rhythms are categorized by genre and style, and different genres have different rhythms.

Music is made up of beats, and a beat is the regular rhythmic pulse of music. A beat can be defined by a number of factors: tempo, pitch, pulse, and displacement.

Tempo is the rate at which beats occur, pitch is the constant vibration of music, pulse is the repetition of this, and displacement is the spacing between each beat.

Rhythms can be represented in many different ways. The most common are probably numerals, dot notation, and letter notation. These are all representations of the same rhythm. Numerals are the simplest form, with no detail beyond how many beats occur. Dot notation shows exactly where each beat occurs and how long they last. Letter notation shows both how many beats occur and what kind of beat it is.

These are all very helpful in recognizing new rhythms or changing rhythms you already know.


The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

Meter is the rhythmic structure or framework of a musical composition. The meter of a piece determines how many beats there are per bar and the type of beat that is used.

There are several common meters in music, some of which include 4/4, 3/4, 2/2, and 6/8. Each meter has its own pattern of beats, which can be counted out in different ways.

How the beats are counted varies based on culture as well. For example, Americans typically count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 while Europeans typically count 1-2-3-4-5–6–7–8.

The number of beats in each bar also varies depending on the meter. A piece in 4/4 time will have four beats in each bar, while a piece in 2/2 time will have only two beats per bar.

Complex rhythm patterns

The Drummer's Guide to Music Theory: Essential Knowledge for Every Musician

Complex rhythm patterns are not very common in popular music. They are, however, very common in more classical music styles, like jazz and classical piano pieces.

These songs use what are called polyrhythms, or multiple rhythms played at the same time. For example, a drummer may play a rhythm on the hi-hat and bass drum at the same time as the rest of the band is playing a 3/4 time rhythm on all instruments.

How does one recognize a polyrhythm? How do musicians manage to play two different rhythms at the same time? The answer lies in understanding syncopation.

Syncopation is the displacement of a regular rhythmic pattern by a different but similarly timed pattern. For example, if a musician plays a 3/4 time rhythm on all instruments except for one bass drum beat that takes up two beats of that rhythm, they have inserted syncopation into the song.

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