Many people who want to learn how to read drum music get put off by the fact that drum notation can look quite complex at first.
Obviously you don’t need to be able to read pitch when playing drums, but you do need to know which drum to play. Drum notation uses all of the same ingredients as standard notation so, as long as you know how to read sheet music, you have all of the skills you need to read drum music. If we add the snare drum in on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar playing quarter notes (crotchets) then we can make a basic drum pattern. Once you have worked out how to play basic drum notation you will easily be able to read added extras such as flames and ghost notes. Ghost notes are also shown by a small note, but this time they are on their own such as the 2nd snare in the example below. Sign Up for your FREE Starter Pack below and you will get free how to read music video lessons with practical activities to help you learn how to read music FAST. You want to be able to play drum grooves and fills from drum notation because learning how to read drum sheet music will help you to learn faster and develop all round as a drummer and musician. The best place to start is by taking a look at the symbols used and how they are written out in music notation to represent the different drum set names. Before we even get to actually reading drum music let us first look at how music in general is written out.
The hi-hats sit just above the top line and is a symbol that consists of a cross with a stem. Notice the O above the symbol to indicate the hat is to be played open followed by the + to indicate the point at which the hats should be closed with the foot.
The hi-hat can also be played by just the foot, when drum music is written for the hi-hat pedal it is placed just below the stave to indicate that the hats must be played by the foot.
The snare drum is one of the most important parts of the drum set and is crucial to nearly every drum beat you play. The bass drum is played with the bass drum pedal and is found at the bottom of the drum stave. Now you might be wondering where the cymbals and toms go to make up the rest of our standard drum kit set up? Like the hi-hats the crash and ride are un-tuned and therefore receive the honer of a cross as part of the make up of there symbol.
The crash floats above the drum music stave and is often written with a circle surrounding the cross, although this is not always the case and you will sometimes find it written with just the cross (no circle).


Once you have mastered how to read each element of the drum sheet music your next task is to sight read the drum parts all together. Below is an example of a simple groove and fill written out using the elements described above. Learning to read drum music is unlike learning any other instrument, for example the piano or violin has undergone 100s of years setting the rules for reading music down in stone.
As you get better on the drums you will find you won’t think about reading the music as you are playing, it will become second nature to you. Learning how to read sheet music for piano can be quite daunting at first because it looks like a series of lots of lines and dots with several random symbols thrown in for good measure.
The key thing to remember is that piano music simply uses the basic elements of sheet music – it just has a lot of them because a piano player has 2 hands and a total of 10 fingers and therefore the potential to play a lot of notes at any one time.
It helps to remember this when practicing as you can practice one hand at a time and make significant progress with whichever piece you are wanting to play. Some contemporary piano music has one stave (usually Treble Clef) for the right hand and chord symbols above or below the staff.
The tempo marking will show you how fast the pulse is, whilst the time signature will show you the grouping of the beat. In the first example below, the top number in the time signature tells us that there are 4 beats in a bar.
Notice how the stems on the hi hat go up, whilst the stems on the kick drums point downwards. You will probably be surprised at just how many of your favorite drummers read drum music too. All music is written on what is called a FIVE LINE STAVE (sometimes referred to as a STAFF). We will start by looking at just three parts of a standard set up for a 5 piece drum kit – hi-hat, snare and bass drum. The reason for the cross is because the hi-hats can not be tuned, they are a fixed pitch or sound and are therefore regarded as un-tuned. Unlike the hi-hat the snare drum has tuning lugs so that the drum skin can be tuned to different pitches hence the reason for the dot. The snare drum can be played in a number of different ways but it is always found on the same place of the stave, here is a basic snare stroke notice it is written in a space. Let’s find where the other drum set elements are placed and how you read them on the sheet music.


You do however find the ride on occasion placed above the stave and is written with a circle surrounding the cross. Notice that the high tom is place highest on stave and the floor tom is closest to the bass drum. Drum grooves and even drum fill-ins are made up of playing different parts of the kit either at the same time or one after the other.
Don’t worry if some of the symbols look unfamiliar to you just concentrate on working out which is, for example the snare or bass drum or if two parts of the drum kit are written in line with each other meaning they are to be played simultaneously. The drum set however being both a contemporary instrument and one that can have new elements added, such as adding an extra bass drum or tom for example, sees its musical rules somewhat more liquefied than it’s classical counterparts.
If you do find you get stuck from time to time just refer back to this page to review how to read drum sheet music. Usually (but not always), the top stave is written in the Treble Clef and the bottom stave is written in Bass Clef.
Here you will see that a quarter note (crotchet) kick drum is to be played on the 1st and 3rd beats of the bar. Musical symbols are placed either on the line or in a space to represent which element of the drum set is to be played.
Lower pitches are generally placed at the bottom of the drum sheet music and higher notes go at the top. Therefore you may sometimes come across a book or text that places the elements else where. The top stave shows the notes that should be played with the right hand, whilst the bottom stave shows the notes to be played by the left hand.
In this case, you would play the tune with your right hand and improvise the chords with your left hand. The crossed notehead sitting above the top line tells us to play a hi hat and the note is an eighth note (a quaver). The main thing is, look out for these difference and be aware that things may well at times appear to be on a different part of the stave. The ones taught above are the generally accepted guidelines for reading the music of a standard 5 piece drum kit here in the UK.



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