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How To Read Drum Notes

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Is reading drum notes really necessary in order to play drums? Well, this question is like asking if the ability to read is necessary in order to speak. The answer is no, you can speak without knowing how to read. But I guess you can imagine just how big a disadvantage this would be. It's similar with drumming and reading drum notation.

Learning how to read drum notes is definitely worth your time. It brings you to a whole new level of drumming. You will be able to learn much faster, easier and more effectively. You will understand your instrument better, you will understand music better. You don't need to become an expert reader to benefit from it. Just knowing the basics will give you access to a whole new world of music.

Please note: The following is only a brief explanation of how to read drum notes. For a more extensive and practical guide, see Learn And Master Drums with Dann Sherrill.

Reading Drum Notation

The very first step to reading drum notation is to learn the symbols and what they represent on your drum set. Drum notation will look something like this:

Basic drum groove

Now, how do we decipher this? First, let's take a look at the staff. You can see that it consists of five horizontal lines and four spaces. In the case of drum notation each line and space represents different instrument on your drum kit. In notation for other instruments, like piano for example, they represent different pitches, but here they indicate a particular drum or a cymbal.

On the left side you can see a fraction - 4/4 in our example. This is the time signature, a sort of formula that determines the counting process for each measure. Measures are units of time, they are separated by vertical lines. As you can see from our example, we have two measures.

The top number of the time signature tells us how many counts (or beats) there are in a measure. In our case that's four. The bottom number tells us what kind of notes are being counted or which note is to get one beat. In our case that's a quarter note. So, a 4/4 time signature means that there are 4 counts (beats) in a measure and that a quarter note gets exactly one whole beat.

Next, let's look at how different drums are represented on the staff. The bottom space is usually reserved for the bass drum, but this varies from publisher to publisher. Usually you will find a legend somewhere, if you can't determine which is which. Snare drum is usually somewhere in the middle, and the hi-hat and cymbals up top.

Drum notation


There are two main shapes of notes that you will encounter. The regular notes that look like a black oval and an X shaped notes. Cymbals and hi hats are usually denoted with an X shaped note. All other drums use regular notes.

There are different types of notes: quarter notes, eight notes, sixteenth notes, and so on. You can tell which is which by the amount of flags the note has on its stem. A quarter note has no flag, an eight note has one flag, and a sixteenth note has two flags. The stems can point upward or downward, there is no difference in meaning. Notes can be connected with lines.

Well, there you have it. This more or less covers the basics. There is still a lot to learn here, but don't rush it. When you're ready for more, take a look at Learn & Master Drums.

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