How to Read Drum Music

Before we start on the basics of reading drum music, being able to read drum notation isn’t mandatory! Plenty of great drummers can’t read drum music at all and play entirely by ear. However, if you don’t know how to read drum music you’re at a serious disadvantage.

Here are just a few good reasons to learn how to read music:

  • You’ll be able to practice all the exercises and rhythms on this site!
  • You’ll be able to download and learn drum music for your favourite tunes
  • You’ll be able to join a band or orchestra and play along with other musicians
  • You’ll be able to study drum grades and potentially teach the drums
  • You’ll be able to transcribe (write down) your own beats, rhythms and drum charts

What does drum music look like?

Here’s some typical drum music for a simple drum beat:

How to Read Drum Music

How to Read Drum Music

Whereas with conventional music each line of music refers to a different pitch. On a drum kit each line refers to a different drum. To start with we’re only going to look at 3 different notes -- the hi-hat, the snare drum and the bass drum.

The bass drum sits on the bottom line. The stem might point downwards or upwards and the note could be shaded or hollow depending on the length of the note. For more about the different note lengths visit this page.

The snare drum sits on the second from top line. Again the stem could point upwards or downwards.

The hi-hat sits on top of the top line and is marked with an ‘x’. Whenever you see a hi-hat note you’re going to assume you’re hitting the hi-hat with your drum stick (normally using your right hand) while keeping the pedal clamped closed.

TOP TIP:  In drum music, cymbals are generally identified by a cross or ‘x’ whereas actual drums are identified with a normal looking note.

What’s a drum clef?

The symbol at the start of the music is known as the clef and it simply informs the reader that this is drum music. The drum clef is either two short vertical lines (most common) or a rectangular box (less common).

What is a time signature?

The time signature simply indicates how many beats there are in a bar and what type of beats they are. So 4/4 in the above example indicates that there are 4 quarter notes in a bar. 3/4 would be 3 quarter notes in a bar and so on.

What is a bar in music?

A bar (also known as a measure) is just a simple way of grouping notes together… otherwise you’d just be trying to read a continuous long string of notes. Each bar is separated by a bar line.

What hand goes where?

We’ll keep things really simple to start with and also assume that you’re right handed:

  • Right hand:  Hi-hat (closed using pedal)
  • Left hand:  Snare drum (under right hand)
  • Right foot:  Bass drum
  • Left foot:  Holding hi-hat pedal down

Let’s play some drum music!

So it’s time to have a go at playing your first drum beat. Have a go at playing this beat below and see how you get on:

Drum Music Simple Beat

If you get stuck have a watch of this video below. Remember this is only a beginner level lesson and covers the very basics of reading music. In later lessons and videos we’ll discuss reading drum music in more depth.

Watch this video on YouTube.
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