How to Read Drum Sheet Music
A complete visual guide to reading drum notation.
Last Updated: November 2023 | 1681 words (8 – 10 minute read)
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Learning how to read drum sheet music isn’t too complicated.
There are just a handful of symbols that you’ll need to learn in order to play any song you can imagine.
We’ll start with a quick refresher of how note values are notated on sheet music, and then get into the specific symbols on drum notation that you’ll need to memorize.
Finally we’ll give you some tips on how to get better at reading music fluently.
Let’s dive in…
Article Table of Contents
- 1 Pre-Requisite
- 2 How to Read the Symbols on Drum Sheet Music
Audio Version of Article
A Refresher on Note Values
If you haven’t read our basic music theory guides then this quick write-up will bring you up to speed with how to read note values.
We’re going to be talking about music in 4/4 time – that means there are 4 “beats” in each “bar/measure” of music, and a QUARTER NOTE (1/4) is considered one single beat.
As a beginner drummer, you need to be aware of a few different note types
- Whole Notes (1) – a note that lasts for 4 beats of music
- Half Notes (1/2) – a note that lasts for 2 beats of music
- Quarter Notes (1/4) – a note that lasts for 1 beat of music in 4/4 time
- Eighth Notes (1/8) – a note that lasts for HALF OF A BEAT
- Sixteenth Notes (1/16) – a note that lasts for a QUARTER of a beat
Here’s what they look like in normal sheet music:
When written on sheet music, eighth and sixteenth note can sometimes be connected together, looking like this:
In other time signatures, a each note will last for more or less time. For example, in 3/4 time, a whole note only lasts for 3 beats of music, but a quarter note is still considered one single beat. In 6/8 time, a whole note lasts for 6 beats of music, but now an EIGHTH note is considered a single beat.
Don’t worry about that for now, just focus on the way notes work in 4/4 time, listed above.
How to Read the Symbols on Drum Sheet Music
Drum music notation in particular is different than other forms of sheet music.
That’s because drummers need additional symbols to account for all the different types of sounds they can create on a drum set.
Below, we’ll get into what each symbol represents on a typical drum kit. You’ll be able to combine this knowledge with your knowledge of note values to be able to play any drum sheet music you come across.
Bass Drum and Snare Drum Notation Symbols
The bass drum note is placed on the bottom space of the music staff. If you have a double pedal bass drum setup, then the second bass pedal is notated on the first lower ledger line below the music staff.
For the snare drum, the note gets placed on the second space from the top on the staff. If you’re required to play a rim-shot, the original note symbol (the oval) gets changed to an x. However, it’s placement stays on the second space from the top.
Hi-Hat Notation Symbols
All hi-hat movements use an x as the note cymbal, instead of the oval. If you’re meant to hit the hi-hat with your stick while it’s closed (i.e. the pedal is held down), then the note gets placed on top of the highest line on the staff. If the hi-hat is supposed to be open (the pedal is NOT held down) when you hit it, that x on top of the staff is inside of a circle.
Finally, if you’re supposed to pedal the hi-hat with your foot, the X symbol is placed BELOW the bottom line of the staff.
Cymbal Notation Symbols
Cymbals on the drum set can have some confusing notation but let’s get into it. All cymbals are notated with an X, not an oval.
The crash cymbal (usually on the left side of the drum set from the drummers perspective) note appears ABOVE the first ledger line on TOP of the music staff. It uses an x symbol, not the oval note.
The splash cymbal (often smaller than the crash) appears ON the second ledger line above the music staff. That means it’s right above the crash cymbal. Some drum sets have another cymbal called the “china crash” or “china cymbal” which gets notated in the same spot as the splash cymbal – ON the second ledger line above the staff – but the x has a circle around it.
The ride cymbal (usually a larger cymbal than the crash and on the right side of the drum set) is placed ON the first ledger line above the music staff using an X. That means it appears right below the crash cymbal note. If you’re meant to hit the “bell” area of the ride cymbal, instead of an X, you’ll see a diamond symbol.
Tom Drums Notation Symbols
The toms on the drum are all notated using an oval symbol and they’re all within the staff itself.
The high tom (the smallest tom drum on the left of your perspective) is placed in the top space of the music staff (right below the top line). The middle tom is placed right below it, on the second line from the top of the music staff.
We skip the next space (since it’s for the snare drum) and the floor tom gets placed on the SECOND LAST space (third space from the top, second space from the bottom). If you have a second floor tom, that note will be placed directly below the first floor tom, on the second last LINE of the music staff.
Tips for Reading Drum Notation Better
When you first start reading sheet music for drumming, it can feel like learning to read a new language.
But it seems a lot more intimidating than it is. You just need a whole bunch of practice and you’ll find that you can memorize the symbols fairly quickly.
Things can seem slow at first, but they’ll pick up steam, don’t worry.
Here are some tips that will help you master the ability to read things fluently.
Always Keep a Cheat Sheet Next to You
When you’re first starting out, always keep a drum notation cheat sheet next to you when you’re practicing. You can keep it on your music stand, or even on one of the drums in front of you for quick access.
I would recommend printing it out on paper so you don’t always have to search for it on your phone/tablet/laptop. If it’s on a piece of paper, it’s always there, ready to go when you want to practice.
This is a pretty basic tip, but it’s an important one. The only way to get good at something quickly is to do it consistently.
That means you should be practicing daily. And you don’t just want to be working on drum rudiments you’ve memorized. You want to work on something that requires you to actually read the notation.
That CAN be rudiments, but if you ARE working on rudiments make sure you print out some sheet music that shows the rudiments and makes you read them.
Otherwise try to find new drum passages that force you to read the sheet music to figure them out.
Use New Songs
But really, rudiments can only take you so far. So you want to practice songs.
Because then you’re more likely to come across all of the various drum notation symbols out there at some point. Practicing things you know but aren’t good at is a great way to get better as a drummer.
But you also want to be practicing NEW things when you’re trying to become fluent in reading drum sheet music. Being forced to read new combinations and patters of the drum notation symbols will get your mind more used to the idea of reading them as if you were reading this english sentence right now.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, there is sheet music for drums. Just like how melodic instruments notate which pitch is supposed to be played, you’re able to notate the different types of drums to be hit using a music staff.
This type of notation works just like sheet music for any instrument. Each drum gets a note symbol and has it’s own place on the musical staff. Some drums are placed in the spaces or on the lines and ledger lines of the basic music staff. Ovals are used to show notes for some drums, but other times you’ll find symbols like and X or a circled X and even a diamond. You read this notation just like you would with regular sheet music for any other instrument.
Drum sheet music looks like regular sheet music that gets notated on a musical staff of 5 lines and 4 spaces (plus additional “ledger” lines above/below). Each drum gets placed on a specific line or space, and the symbol for the note can either be an oval (like regular sheet music) or an X, a circled X or a diamond.
Learning how to read drum sheet music isn’t as complicated as it may seem at first.
All it requires is memorizing a few symbols and where they’re placed on a musical staff.
The best way to get better at reading this type of notation is to practice new drum patterns/passages/songs daily, so it forces you to recognize symbols and placement frequently.
Thanks for reading this full guide on reading drum notation! I hope it was helpful.
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