How to read drum notes like a pro – Beginner’s guide to drum notes

For centuries, musicians have used drum notes as meaning not only to write their music but also to read it

Notation can be, and is, considered a language of music. 

People around the globe can communicate through music, and because of that, the notation is kind of a perfect language.

But every language has its own set of rules. To successfully communicate through language, you must learn how to speak and read it.

When you first see a drum sheet, you may seem a little bit overwhelmed. but do not fear! It takes time to memorize all the notes and play them.

I will try to explain to you how notation works and how can you master drum note reading.

What is a drum notation?

As we said, the drum notation is a form of language for musicians. Almost every professional musician knows how to read drum notes.

Drum notes are written on the six horizontal lines, and every sign equals one sound that you produce on the drums. 

It determines:

  • notes
  • pauses
  • rhythm 
  • tempo 

This form of music notation is very ancient and originates from medieval Europe. 

Every instrument uses the same method of notation, including drums, but percussion are a little bit different.

The terms F-note, C-note don’t apply to percussionists. Drummers do not need to care about the pitch of the note. 

They already have the signs that mark the part of the drum they need to play.

That doesn’t automatically mean that reading notes for drummers are easier. It is just different than the rest of the band or orchestra.

Do I really need to know drum notes?

It’s not of uttermost importance to know to read notes to be a good drummer. 

They are many famous musicians who don’t know to read notes. One of the most famous examples is Dennis Chambers.

However, if you want to play jazz, classical music, or even blues, it will be a lot easier if you learn to read notes.

The other advantage of knowing drum notes is that people will consider you a professional. 

Knowledge of the notes also adds another layer to your playing. Improvising is creative, but there is a certain satisfaction in reading notes and playing simultaneously.

The main disadvantage of learning is that it takes time. It is a relatively long process that includes a lot of practice. 

But, the ultimate payoff is immeasurable.

Tabs vs. Notes

If you searched on the internet how to play your favorite songs, you probably stumbled upon drum tabs.

Drum tablatures are an oversimplified version of drum notes. 

When PCs came on the market, it was the easiest method to write music.

Even amateur drummers who just know the basics of drumming can probably figure out how they function. 

Each drum part is marked on the individual line. Duration is marked with specific signs.

While drum tabs can be useful and are very fun when you want to play your favorite songs, they can also be overcomplicated.

I advise you to learn classic drum notation. If you already know to read tabs, perfect. But classic notes are universal, standardized, and have way more depth.

How to read drum notes?

In this part, I will explain how to write and read each note on the music sheet.

The best advice I can give you right now is to try not to read the music sheet like a book. When you read a note, try to reproduce it on your drums.

 

We will work on each note individually, then combine them and throw some pauses and accents into the mix.

I can’t stress enough that you should be patient and resilient. Even the best drummers started from the bottom!

How to read time signatures?

Let’s start with some practice. This picture may seem overwhelming at first, but it is simple. 

The first symbol you encounter is called Clef, and this specific symbol is called G-Clef

It indicates in which key you play the song. Do not worry too much about that for now, because almost all songs are written in G-Clef.

The point of interest here is the number that looks like a fraction 4/4. That number represents our time signature

The bottom number tells us the exact value of one beat, and the second one represents how many beats to count within one bar.

What does that mean in practice? 

That means that in 4/4 time signature, there can only be 4 quarter notes in one bar, one whole note, eight 8th notes, or some combination of these notes.

I know that this looks overwhelming at first, but it will come naturally. Learning to read notes is not a linear process. 

It will all just click at some point. We will discuss the duration of the notes later in the text.

How to read drum notes

Bass drum

bass drum note

The first note we are going to learn is the bass or kick drum. Its location is between the first and the second line on the sheet.

The first thing you should be doing is trying to emulate it on your drum kit. 

You shouldn’t worry too much about the duration of the note. For now, just focus on the symbols.

As you know already, the bass drum is your lowest sounding note, and as such, it is located at the bottom of the music sheet.

The bass drum is the biggest drum part in your kit and is often called a kick drum. 

That name is derived from the fact that drummers use a specific pedal to kick it and produce the sound.

Floor tom

floor tom note

The next sign we are going to cover is the floor tom note. It is the lowest note in the drum sheet right after the bass drum.

This drum part is called the floor tom because it is located on the ground next to your bass.

You can see from the examples that the higher the note, the higher it is written on the music sheet. 

That will immensely help you understand how to read music.

Snare drum

snare drum notation

 

Many drummers consider the snare drum to be the most important part of every drum set. 

The main characteristics of the snare drum are the wires(called snares- hence the name), that help produce the sound alongside the plastic surface.

The other important thing you need to know about snare drums is how to hit them. 

That can also be marked on the music sheet, but that’s an advanced technique we will discuss later.

Mid tom and High tom

high and middle tom drum notes

Let’s finish with the classic drum kit setup. 

Here we have a mid and a low tom drum. They are an essential part of every set.

Modern-day drummers like to have more than two toms in their arsenal. 

Alongside a floor tom, we will just learn how to read mid and high toms.

They are located right in front of you. The main difference between toms and snare drums is that toms don’t have snares.

They have a place pretty high on the music sheet because they produce a sound that is higher in altitude than snares, bass, or floor tom.

Ride cymbal

ride cymbal note

Musicians usually write cymbal notes a little differently than the rest of the kit. 

You can already see that, instead of the typical quarter note, we use the notes that have the shape of a letter x.

A ride cymbal can be recognized very easily on the music sheet because it is located at the top.

The ride cymbal is an essential part of every drum kit and is the largest cymbal in your setup. 

You can hit it with your stick to create the distinct bell sound, or you can even crash on it.

Crash cymbal

crash cymbal note reading

The first thing I need to explain is the position of the note on the music sheet. 

A crash cymbal is located on the line called a ledger line. With the help of the ledger line, we write notes above our pitch.

The crash cymbals are the highest-sounding cymbals in our drum kit. 

Drummers use them to give an accent to certain rhythms because they can produce a very loud sound.

If you have a more professional drum set, you probably have two crash cymbals on each side. 

We write the other right above the first one.

The main difference between a ride and a crash is the size. The crash cymbals are always smaller than a ride.

Hi-Hat Cymbals

hi hat note variations

The Hi-Hat cymbals are a bit trickier to read. 

We have three different notes for one part of the drum set. 

We play each note on the same part of the drum kit, but the technique we use is very different each time.

The first note we play on the closed hi-hat cymbal. It produces a sound that is very similar to your crash cymbal. 

If we press the pedal that controls the position of the hi-hat, we close the gap between it.

The second one is played on the open hi-hat

By not-pressing the pedal, we create a space between two cymbals that we can crash. 

That way, we can produce a drastically different sound.

At last, we have a sound that we produce by pressing the hi-hat pedal

The two cymbals then crash each other. It is marked at the bottom of the music sheet.

For beginners, the hi-hat cymbals can be a little bit difficult to use and read. 

You should start with basses and drums, then proceed to ride and crash cymbal. 

The hi-hat should be your last stop on the way to learn to read the music notation.

Duration of the note

Now you know how to read all parts of the drums and cymbals. But what about the duration of the notes?

Knowing what to hit is one thing. Knowing when and for how long to let it last- is a completely new thing.

Probably, you have already heard of the terms note, quarter note, 8th note. We already discussed this a little in the time signatures segment.

To discuss the length of the note, we must first tell what the beat is.

How to determine one beat?

There are various ways to determine one beat.

One of the common ways to count the beats is to say it loud. Just count to four, and each second equals one beat.

Classic musicians utilize the next technique. Place your elbow on your knee and take your hand up horizontally. 

Now, in one second, touch the knee with your palm. During that time, sing the note. That is exactly one beat.

You can also use a metronome to count beats. The metronome is a very useful tool to help you understand tempo and rhythm.

The rests

Rests are an equally important part of the music as the notes. Every drummer needs to understand the function of the rest.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult.

Think of rests as normal notes that we don’t play.

Every rest lasts for a fixed amount of beats. 

So, if we have a quarter note, we have a quarter rest. Each note has its counterpart rest.

Note values

drum notes reading for beginners

This chart will be your best friend on your journey to learn to read notation. 

Don’t try to memorize it at once. Take a quick look at it before the practice every day.

The most important note is surely the quarter note. It counts as one beat and it will become the standard of your lessons. 

When you don’t know to read notes and play your first note on the drums, you are probably playing a quarter.

The whole note and sixteenth note are not that common when you play drums. You should not worry too much about it.

When you practice the duration of the notes, play them on one drum piece, and count the note out loud. 

With enough practice, you will not need to count and at all, and you will execute them spontaneously.

Extras

If you still want to improve your drum technique, I will throw in some more advanced stuff for you.

Knowing how to hit drums is very important. When you hit the drums lightly and heavily, it produces a very different sound.

Also, some notes have accents. Let’s see how can you write all that on your music sheet.

The first note has an accent. We mark it with the > sign. When you play the accented notes, you need to give it a stronger emphasis.

The other note has a marcato sign. A marcato note and an accented note are almost similar. 

While the accent gives note more emphasis, the marcato usually means to play it louder.

The third one is called a ghost note. When you see the ghost note, you need to play it more lightly. We use ghost notes to give our beat more volume.

The final sign is called the flam drum note.  These two notes should be played in quick succession.

Useful pieces of advice on how to read drum notes

The first that I can’t stress enough is to be patient

When I started learning drum notes, I wasn’t very good at them. I was very desperate and I thought I couldn’t do it.

But after a year, I started to read them. It was so satisfying and well worth the effort. 

It improved my music skills drastically. Now I can memorize whole music sheets and play them out of my head.

When you see you are not progressing anymore, pause for a few days

If you try to learn something that takes time, practising is not the only thing. 

Sometimes you need to relax and things will just click.

Your best friend is a metronome. As a drummer, your job is to set the rhythm and tempo of a band. Naturally, you must be very precise.

A metronome can help you improve your timing and set the right tempo. 

It will make this process a lot easier. There are even some apps like Soundbrenner and Metronome Plus that are free and are very good.

Useful books to profound your knowledge on the drum notation

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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