How do Drummers Know What to Play?

December 20, 2023

In this article, we’ll dive into how do drummers know what to play? 

Essentially, this is about understanding the drummer’s role in interpreting and contributing to a piece of music, whether it’s following a specific rhythm pattern, improvising, or collaborating with other band members.

We’ll explore the various factors that guide a drummer’s decisions, from the structure of the song and the genre’s conventions to their personal style and the cues they pick up from other musicians. 

Join me as we delve into the intricacies of a drummer’s process in choosing their beats and rhythms, shedding light on how they creatively and skillfully navigate through different musical landscapes.

How do drummers know what to play?

To be able to play the song drummers need a couple of information they usually get by listening:

1. Tempo

2. Rhythm

3. Song structure

4. Fills and pauses

how do drummers know what to play


AKA The Song’s Speed.

Understanding the drumming tempo and rhythm is crucial, as it dictates how fast or slow a song is played.

Drummers listen to the speed of the song to determine the tempo. They might tap their foot or count in their head to match this speed.


Rhythm is the pattern of beats in the music. 

Drummers listen to the existing rhythm of a song to understand which beats to emphasize and how to structure their drumming.

Different music styles have distinct rhythms. For example, rock might have a strong emphasis on beats 2 and 4, while jazz might have more complex syncopations.

Some rhythms like disco, straight rock beat, and rumba are pretty COMMON. In that case, you just need to know the song. 

For more complex rhythms you need to break down what each component is playing. There are various ways how drummers do this but I will not go into details in this article.

However, I must say that it is easier to break down a song if the rhythm is KIND of familiar. 

This can be achieved by practicing and listening to music, just filling your internal memory with this information.

Song Structure

Grasping the drumming song structure, including verses and choruses, is key for drummers to adapt their playing accordingly.

Drummers listen to these parts to understand where to play more aggressively (like in a chorus) and where to pull back (like in a verse).

Why is this important? 

Knowing the song STRUCTURE helps drummers anticipate changes in the music and prepare for transitions, such as moving from a verse into a chorus.

Fills and Pauses

Fills are short drumming sequences that add flair or signal transitions between song sections. 

Pauses are moments where the drums might stop briefly. Drummers listen for these to add dynamic and dramatic effect to the song.

While some fills may be pre-determined, drummers often add their own creativity here, improvising fills based on their feel for the song

How do drummers remember songs?

Drummers employ drumming practice methods, like repetition and using visual cues or drum sheet music, to remember songs.

  • Repetition and Practice: Constantly practicing the song embeds the drum parts deeply into muscle memory. This repetition makes the rhythms and beats almost instinctive, allowing drummers to perform with less conscious effort.
  • Visual Cues and Sheet Music: For complex pieces, drummers often rely on sheet music or visual cues. These tools serve as roadmaps during performances, especially in the initial stages of learning a new song, helping to recall specific beats and transitions.


In conclusion, drummers determine what to play by mastering drumming tempo, rhythm, and song structure, and by employing memory techniques for complex pieces.

They match the song’s speed and rhythm pattern, adapting their playing to fit the song’s structure, whether it’s a verse, chorus, or bridge.

To remember songs, they rely heavily on repetition and practice to embed the drum parts into muscle memory, and for complex pieces, they use visual cues or sheet music. 

Denis Loncaric
Denis Loncaric

My name is Denis. I am a drummer, percussionist, music enthusiast, and blogger. Drums have been my passion for 15 years now. My idea is to write about the things I like and I am interested in. I want to share my drum passion with fellow musicians who walk, talk, and breathe drums.

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