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How To Read Drum Music

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Many drummers learn to play drums by listening to music and trying to mimic it. While there is nothing wrong with this kind of ear training, it quickly becomes a limitation.

Is reading music really necessary? Sure, you can play drums by ear, but you're missing out on a lot. The ability to read music will give you much better understanding of how your instrument works and will greatly improve your learning and playing abilities. Is it worth your time? Most definitely.

If you ever want to advance beyond the amateur level, you will have to learn how to read music. Plain and simple. On this page we'll take a look at some of the fundamentals.

Please note: This is only a very basic explanation of how to read drum music. For a more extensive and practical guide, see Learn And Master Drums with Dann Sherrill.

Drum Sheet Music

Drum sheet music is not very different than any other kind of sheet music. Everything happens on a staff. However, in drum notation instead of showing different pitches, the different lines and spaces on a staff represent a different instrument on your drum kit.

The staff consists of five lines. There is no universally accepted way of positioning specific drums on the staff, but the bottom is usually the bass drum, the snare is somewhere in the middle, and the hi-hat and cymbals up top. If you can't determine which is which, look for a legend.

Drum notation

At the beginning of the staff you can see a time signature. Time signature is one of the most important things for a drummer to understand. The top number tells you the number of beats in a measure and the bottom number tells you which note is to get one beat. Most rock music will be in a time signature of 4/4, which means there are four beats in a measure and that a quarter note equals one beat.

Here we'll introduce you to the three types of notes that are good starting points when you're learning to read drum music. They are: quarter notes, eight notes, and sixteenth notes. The stem, or the lines above each note will tell you whether the note is a quarter note, eighth note, or 16th note.

Quarter note Quarter note. This is how a quarter note looks like. In 4/4 time this note represents one beat. So if there are four beats in one measure you can fit four of them in there.


Eight note Eight note - you can see that an eight note has a flag on its stem. In a time signature of 4/4, you can fit eight eight notes in a measure.


16th note A sixteenth note has two flags. Notes can be connected with lines like in the example below.


This is basically all you need to know in order to understand and play the following notation:

Basic drum groove


This covers the basics of basics. When you're ready to take your drumming and reading music to the next level, take a look at Learn & Master Drums.

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