Playing by ear is, well, OK. Many professional drummers have never learned how to read music at all. Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you happen to end up making it into the big time.
But, so many aspiring drummers still find themselves able to make a career or at least a sometimes-paying hobby out of bashing the skins. And there are simply a lot more opportunities out there for drummers who can read music.
More drumming opportunities…
Whether it helps you to pick up work as a studio drummer or to join an established band and quickly and easily learn their music, being able to read can be a big career boost.
It can also help to expand your horizons and to better understand what other drummers are playing when you see it written down.
For all you drummers out there who want to be drum-literate, this drum notation guide is your first step to reading drum music.
Drum Notation – First Things First
I’m going to take things step-by-step here. If you’ve never had a chance to learn to read music at all, we need to start with the basics.
I’m sure you can figure out the basic way a beat is written, with dots in a line. But to be able to read, you have to get used to the environment that music is written down in.
First and foremost, music is written on what is called a “staff.” This may sound like something a wizened old wizard leans on, but in fact, it’s a set of five horizontal, parallel lines.
One staff runs across a page of music from left to right. If a tune continues, another staff is added below and another and another until you get to the bottom of the page.
The Drum Clef
A “clef” is a normally fancy symbol to show you where you are in terms of register. For high-pitched instruments like the flute or trumpet, the first thing you’ll see on the staff is a treble clef.
This looks something like a fancy ampersand. For lower instruments, like a trombone or cello, you’ll see a bass clef, like a big apostrophe with two dots.
Sadly, the drum and percussion clef is just two vertical lines. Boring! This symbol is also called a neutral clef, and lets you know that you’re reading music for non-pitched percussion instruments.
With treble and bass clef notation, both used for pitched instruments, notes are quite different from notes in drum notation. Each line or space on the staff represents a different note for those instruments to play.
Because there are five lines and four spaces between them, this gives you nine notes you can write on the staff or just over one octave. However, short lines and spaces can be added to write notes much lower or much higher than the notes that fit on the staff.
Either way, the higher a note is on the staff, the higher its pitch. The lower down you go, the lower the pitch.
With non-pitched instruments like drums, things are different…
Rather than assigning a pitch to each line or space, we assign a piece of your drum kit to that level. Lower drums like your bass drum and floor tom are written on lines lower on the staff. The hi-hat pedal is also written low down because your feet are lower than your arms, I guess!
Your snare and higher toms are written higher up. After that, cymbals of different sizes are written on higher levels and even on extra lines above the staff.
Drum hits are written with circles, while cymbal and percussion hits are written as triangles or Xs. In any case, there’s no set way to assign drum voices to lines or spaces on the staff.
Instead, each piece of music has a “key” or a “legend” that tells you which voice goes to which level. This can be tricky indeed since you have to be able to adjust to different voicings between different pieces of music.
Time and Beats
Time and beats are what make drum notation a true notation, rather than just dots on a page. I’ll admit before I learned how to read drum notation, I used to sometimes write my own.
Just using dots and dashes across the page. It was a sort of messy Morse code and definitely unreadable to anyone but myself.
Before you see any notes on the staff, you’ll see two numbers written on top of each other just to the right of the drum clef. This is the “time signature.” Most commonly, you’re going to see 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8 since these are by far the most commonly used time signatures in popular music these days.
How time signature works…
The staff is divided into bars by vertical “bar lines.” Each bar represents a full count of the time signature. In 4/4 time, the top number is 4, so that means there are 4 counts in each bar.
In ¾ time, you would have 3 counts in every bar, and 6 counts in a bar of 6/8 music. So, that’s the top number in the time signature.
The bottom number is, thankfully, always an even number like 4, 8, or 16. These numbers represent quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, respectively, and they tell you which sort of note gets a count.
Here’s how it breaks down…
4/4 time, you count 4 quarter notes for each bar.
- ONE two THREE four | ONE two THREE four
3/4 time, you count only 3 quarter notes in each bar.
- ONE two three | ONE two three
6/8 time, you count 6 eighth notes in each bar.
- ONE two three FOUR five six | ONE two three FOUR five six
It’s that simple!
Weird Time Signatures
Because we’re so used to 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8 time, anything that differs from these “normal” time signatures sounds weird and can be hard to count. But the way pieces are written still follows the same rules.
For example, in 5/4 time, you count 5 quarter notes in each bar. That would look something like this:
- ONE two three FOUR five | ONE two three FOUR five
A piece in 7/8 time just means that you count 7 eighth notes in each bar, like this:
- ONE two three FOUR five SIX seven | ONE two three FOUR five SIX seven
Really weird time signatures…
Like 17/16, 5/8, and 9/4 are all possible. Notice, however, that the bottom number is always an even number and is nearly always 4, 8, or 16.
To help you out with counting, you can make a small investment in a great metronome that can handle odd time signatures like the Boss DB-30 Dr. Beat.
Notes and Rests
The symbols used to represent the value of notes, and rests are borrowed from conventional music notation and are set in stone. Here are the note symbols in drum notation:
- Whole note – a circle.
- Half note – a circle with a stick (going either up or down).
- Quarter note – a colored-in circle with a stick with a flag coming off of it.
- Eighth note – a colored-in circle with a stick with two flags coming off of it.
- Sixteenth note – a colored-in circle with a stick with three flags coming off of it.
- Thirty-second note – a colored-in circle with a stick with four flags coming off it.
Take note that for the quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second notes, the flags on their sticks turn into connecting lines that tie these notes together if there are several of them in a row.
Different Symbols for Rests
This is when you don’t play anything and rest up for your next beats. Here are the rest symbols in drum notation:
- Whole rest – a black rectangle hanging down from the second line from the top.
- Half rest – a black rectangle sitting up on the third line from the top.
- Quarter rest – a black squiggle almost like a pointy 3.
- Eighth rest – like the number 7 with a dot on the top-left point.
- Sixteenth rest – like two eighth rests stuck on top of each other.
- Thirty-second rest – like three eighth rests stuck on top of each other.
Other Note Symbols
So far, we’ve been talking all about “even” notes. You know, half, quarter, eighth, etc. But in actuality, notes can be different values than these. Instead of making a third note or a sixth note, there are two symbols used to represent these other notes.
First off, a simple dot (.) is added behind a note to let you know that you should play it for an extra 50% longer count than the type of note it is.
Let me explain…
A quarter note has the same length value as two eighth notes, right? So if you add a dot (.) to a quarter note, you add another 50% to the length. This makes it the same length value as three eighth notes. I know this might be hard to get, but if you see a dot, play that note for 150% of its normal length.
Let’s take the 4/4 time signature that we all know and love as an example. In 4/4, you will find 4 quarter notes in each bar. But you could also play double speed and play 8 eighth notes in that same bar. No problem so far.
A quarter note triplet is when you play three quick notes in the time you would play just one quarter note. So this is faster than eighth notes but slower than sixteenth notes. Triplets are written as a set of three connected notes with a “3” written above.
In 4/4 time, you could play 4 sets of quarter note triplets in a bar. What would that be – something like 12 twelfth notes? It would look like this:
- 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 4 | (quarter notes)
- 123 223 323 423 | 123 223 323 423 | (triplets)
Other Signs and Symbols
For this section of my drum notation guide, I have to say that there are far too many of these to go through comprehensibly. There are marks for muting cymbals, for playing bells and rims instead of clean hits, for speed and dynamics, and a whole heck of a lot more.
If you want a solid, comprehensive guide to all the extra signs and symbols in drum notation, you could pick up a book to help you. I’d recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Drums or Rhythm and Notation for the Drums to give you all you need to know to read drum music.
Down for Some Serous Drumming?
We can help with that. Have a look at our handy articles on The Nashville Number System for Drummers Explained, Odd Time Signatures, Derek Roddy’s Double Bass Technique, How to Hold Drumsticks, and Tips to Teach Yourself Drums for more useful drum information.
And don’t miss our in-depth reviews of the Best Portable Drum Kits, the Best Jazz Drum Sets, the Best Drum Practice Pads, the Best Drumsticks, the Best Snare Drums, the Best Electronic Drum Sets, and the Best Bass Drum Pedals you can buy in 2023.
Drum Notation Guide – Final Thoughts
Reading drum music is easy once you understand the notation. My advice for you is to look up the drum notation (aka sheet music) to one of your favorite simple songs and read along while listening to the drums.
You’ll start to see the beats falling where you hear them. And before long, you’ll be reading ahead and expecting the beats. After that, reading is all practice.
Playing the drums requires the coordination of all your limbs at once, so getting your eyes to send all those cues at once is going to take some time. But keep at it, and you’ll find yourself able to read drum notation sooner than you could possibly magine.
Until next time, let the beat go on.