How To Read Drumming Sheet Music (The Beginner’s Guide)

Wondering how to read drumming sheet music? Don't worry, we've got your back!

In this YMI guide you will learn:

  • What Are The Different Types Of Notes Used In Drum Notation?
  • How Do I Know Which Part Of The Drum Kit To Play?
  • How Do I Read Drum Beats And Fills?

And Much More!

How To Read Drumming Sheet Music (The Beginner's Guide)

When you’re starting out on the drums, the idea of learning to read music notation can seem like an incredibly daunting task.

Almost all of my new drum students look at me in horror when I say that we’re going to start using some written down drum music!

However, the fundamentals of reading drum sheet music are actually pretty straightforward and can be an essential tool when learning to play drums. 

As contemporary ‘drum kit’ drummers, we’re lucky in that we’re only dealing with rhythmic notation, rather than both melodic and rhythmic notation associated with instruments such as the piano.

Obviously, drummers have to contend with a much more challenging level of four-way coordination, but at least the reading is easier! 

In this essential guide, I’m going to give you all the fundamental skills to get you started on the journey of reading drum notation.

What Are The Different Types Of Notes Used In Drum Notation?

Before we delve into drum kit specific notation, you need to understand some general music notation fundamentals that apply to every instrument. 

The Stave

The stave is simply the name for the lines that music notation is written on. A blank stave looks like this:

Notice how there are five lines running horizontally with four spaces in between them. The stave is our blank canvas, ready for notes to be placed on lines or in the spaces...depending on which drum you’re being asked to play. Just like reading a book, you read music from left to right. 

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Time Signature

In music, we create rhythm by dividing time into ‘beats’. This allows us to count along to music, creating a sense of consistent ‘pulse’.  

Music is divided into ‘measures’ or ‘bars’ that contain a set number of beats.

A time signature simply tells you how many beats there are in each bar. 

If we take a look at our stave example again. You’ll notice two numbers at the beginning of the measure. This is the time signature. 

The top number = How many beats in a measure

The bottom number = What type of beats they are

In this instance, the time signature is 4/4 (pronounced four-four). This is telling us that there are four beats in every measure of music. So to count along you would count One, Two, Three, Four, then start again in the next measure.

The bottom number tells us what type of note we are using to count. In this case, it is a ‘quarter note’, a quarter note lasts for one beat (hence being called a quarter note, as it lasts for one-quarter of a bar). More info on note types coming up! 

To create more complex rhythms we can then divide these four beats into smaller ‘subdivisions’ of notes.

4/4 is a very common time signature in rock and pop music. 

The two parallel bars to the left of the time signature is the ‘Rhythm Clef’. It basically tells you that you’re reading music for a percussion instrument. 

Read More >> How Do You Record Electronic Drums?

Note And Rests

Different musical notes last for differing amounts of time within a measure.

This is important to understand, as it means that if you can count the right amount of beats for each note, then you’ll always play your drums in the right place!

Each note has an equivalent ‘rest’ that lasts for the same amount of time as the note itself. However, when it’s a rest you DONT PLAY for the duration of the note. 

Whole Note

As you can see a whole note takes up a whole measure. This means it’s worth four beats. If you see the whole note rest, you know not to play anything for four beats. 

whole note notation

Half Note (½)

If we divide a whole note into two, we’re left with two half notes (½ notes). Each of these notes is worth two beats. So you’ll need two of them to fill a 4/4 measure. Imagine you’re dividing a pie into fractions!

Quarter Note (¼)

If you divide a half note into two, you’re now left with two-quarter notes (it’s simple fractions ½ = ¼ + ¼ ) As the name suggests, a quarter note takes up a quarter of a measure of 4/4. Therefore, each note is worth one beat.

Eighth Note (⅛)

So continuing this pattern of dividing notes, if you split a quarter note in two you’re left with two eighth notes. Each one making up ⅛ of a measure. An eighth note is worth half a beat.

Sixteenth Note (116)

The last note we’re going to cover is the sixteenth note. Each note being 1/16 of a measure. A sixteenth note is worth a quarter of a beat.

Did you know: The earliest record of musical notation was discovered on a cuneiform tablet in Nippur, Babylonia (modern day Iraq) in 1400 B.C.

How To Count Notes

It’s all very well knowing the different types of notes and rests, but to really get good at reading notation you’ll need to be able to count them out correctly too. 

The most common notes found in drum notation are quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes.

Let’s have a look at the different ways to count each type of note:

In the above example, there is a measure of quarter notes, followed by a measure of eighth notes played on the snare drum. The counting is written above the notes.

As you can see quarter notes are counted as “one, two, three, four” with one note on every beat. When we get to the eighth notes there are now two notes per beat, therefore they are counted as “One and Two and Three and Four and”, with the ‘+’ signs representing the ‘and’s’. 

Sixteenth notes take things a step further, as you can now fit four notes per beat.

As you can see, we still have four beats in the measure but we’ve subdivided each beat into four notes...resulting in a measure of sixteenth notes.

Sixteenth notes are counted as “1 e and ah, 2 e and ah, 3 e and ah, 4 e and ah”.

A great exercise is to put on a metronome at 70bpm with the click representing the quarter note pulse (i.e one, two, three, four). Play a bar of each note as a single stroke roll (RLRL) on the snare drum whilst counting out loud. The numbers of each beat should always be on the clicks of the metronome, with the eighth and sixteenth notes fitting in between. 

Here’s a great video helping explain how to count out different notes. 

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How Do I Know Which Part Of The Drum Kit To Play?

Now that you have a better knowledge of the different types of notes and how to count them, we need to take a look at how different parts of the drum kit are written on the stave.

Here is a key to where all the different parts of a drum set sit on a stave:

As a general rule, the lower in pitch the instrument, the lower it’s going to be on the stave.

So looking at the drum key above; you can see that the kick drum is right in the bottom space (being the lowest pitch instrument), with the cymbals being all the way at the top, as they are higher in pitch than the drums. 

The only exception being the stepped hi-hat (which is the ‘chick’ sound when you use your foot to step the two hi-hat cymbals together).

It’s at the bottom of the stave to differentiate it from a normal hi-hat that’s struck with a stick. 

Cymbals are always represented with the notehead as an ‘X’ (unless is a special stroke such as the ride bell), whereas drums will have a normal notehead. 

Read More >> Should You Choose Acoustic or Electronic Drums?

How Do I Read Drum Beats And Fills?

Now you know where all the elements of the drum kit reside on the stave, we can take a look at how they’re put together to make drum grooves and drum fills.

(NOTE: I use the word groove to describe a drum beat, as this helps differentiate it from the counted beats (one, two, three, four) within a measure of music).

Standard rock and pop drum grooves are commonly played with a consistent cymbal pattern running through it (usually played with your dominant hand on the hi-hat or ride cymbal).

Underneath this constant pattern sits the bass and snare drum pattern.

Here is an example of a basic rock beat:

In the groove above, the hi-hat is playing constant eighth notes, counted as “one and two and three and four and”. 

The bass drum plays at the same time on beats 1 and 3 and the ‘and’ of 3. 

The snare drum is on beats 2 and 4...which is a very common place for it to go, as this creates what’s called a ‘backbeat’.

Moving on to fills. By combining different types of notes on different beats, you can create interesting rhythms than can be used as fills.

Here’s an example of a fill that combines quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. Notice the consistent beats at the top, but with the specific counting for each type of note included. 

The drums played in this fill is the snare drum on beat 1, hi tom on beat 2, mid tom on beat 3, and then finally the last note on the floor tom on beat 4. Meaning that this fill will travel around the drum set.

If you were to count this fill out to a metronome it would be “one and, two e and ah, three and, four”. 

Final Thoughts On Reading Drum Notation

Learning to read music notation fluently takes practice and patience. There’s no short cut, you just have to start with simple drum charts and build from there. 

Getting a few drum lessons from an experienced teacher will also help. But with this guide, you’ll have a head start and will hopefully make learning to read music not such a daunting task.

Before you know it you’ll be sight reading whole songs you’ve never even seen before! 

Russell Keeble

Russell Keeble

Russell is the Lead Drums insider here at YourMusicInsider. He has been a professional drummer, producer and audio engineer for over 10 years. He has worked extensively in the music industry in London UK, and from his own dedicated recording studio has tracked drums for a huge range of artists worldwide.

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Russell Keeble

Russell Keeble

Russell is the Lead Drums insider here at YourMusicInsider. He has been a professional drummer, producer and audio engineer for over 10 years. He has worked extensively in the music industry in London UK, and from his own dedicated recording studio has tracked drums for a huge range of artists worldwide.


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