If you’re new to drumming and you’re on the lookout for a short notation guide to help you get started, the following paragraphs might be of help. Being able to play complex songs might take time indeed, but mastering the basics calls just for a bit of attention and practice. In case you also need a metronome, you can check it out here.
Playing the drums might seem like a lot of fun, and it is, but it is also a lot of work. Learning to play them properly from the very start is essential. Reading drum sheet music may look a bit complicated at first, yet once you understand the basics and the structure of a drum sheet, everything will make sense.
To give you a helping hand, we will go through the architecture of a drum sheet below, hoping that it will make it easier for you to get started. Until playing complex songs, the following explanations should help you decipher all those symbols you see on the staff. Speaking of the staff…
Staff and drum keys
All the notes and symbols that guide your playing need groundwork, and that’s what the staff is. Music is written on what musicians call staff, which includes five horizontal lines on which the notes will be placed, each of them telling the player which drum to hit.
As far as drum keys are concerned, you will see that there are different drum key versions. The important thing is to understand the basics of these drum keys, and you’ll then be able to read them all.
As you can see, there is a difference between the symbols placed on the lines of the staff. Some of the notes are as many of us know them, and then there are those symbols resembling, let’s say, traditional notes yet with an ‘x’.
This is the difference between drums and cymbals in fact; therefore, the standard or traditional notes are used for the drums, whereas the ones featuring the ‘x’ are used for the cymbals. Each drum has its place on the staff, and once you learn where each of them sits, it will be easier for you to know which one to hit.
If you take a closer look at the position of each drum and cymbal on the staff, you will notice that they actually resemble the way they sit in a drum set. The cymbals are the highest in the staff because they are placed above your pedals and drums in real life. On the other hand, the bass drum is the lowest in the staff and in a drum set.
For more complex drum set arrangements, you could use this staff as a reference:
Time signature and bars
Now that you know where the drums and cymbals are placed on the staff, you need to know when and how to play them. You will see that the first thing on the staff in a drum sheet is the clef that is followed by two numbers, as you can see in the image below.
The top number is used to indicate the number of notes in a bar. You’ve most probably seen that the staff is divided into individual measures. These measures are called bars, and they are separated by vertical lines that are known as bar lines.
The time signature is used to determine the number of beats in each bar, and it is written like a fraction. While the top number indicates how many beats are in a measure, the bottom number refers to the size of a note that is the duration of a beat. Most drum sheet music is in 4/4, and that’s why you will often see a ‘C’ used for the time signature, which indicates ‘common’ time.
However, you may also see 5/4, for example. In this case, it means that each measure will include five beats and that the quarter-note will last for one beat. The time signature is written not only at the beginning of each piece of music but also where there is a meter change.
Notes and rests
To read a drum sheet, though, you need to be able to distinguish the note and rest values since they come in various versions, as you can see in the image below.
Notes can thus be filled and unfilled, as well as with or without a tail or vertical line. As you can see, each size note has an equivalent rest, and you will find the following values: whole note (1/1), half note (1/2), quarter note (1/4), eighth note (1/8), and sixteenth note (1/16). You can also find thirty-second notes (1/32).
These fractions refer to the note and rest sizes, and they define the length of the notes. For example, if you have a whole note to play, you will hit the drum/cymbal on count ‘1’ and then wait while counting ‘2’, ‘3’, and ‘4’, which means that you cover four beats.
Whole and half notes are actually rarely included, so you are more likely to find drum sheet music, including quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. Notes and rests are combined to write rhythms, and one simple way to help you understand them is to count them using the smallest note value you will have to play.
A quarter note will take up one beat, which means that you would hit on count ‘1’, and by the time you reach count ‘2’, you’d be done with it. For example, if you have a bar with four quarter notes, like in the image below, you would hit the drum on each of the ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, and ‘4’ counts.
An eighth note will last half a beat, which means that you would hit on count ‘1’, and the note would end midway between count ‘1’ and count ‘2’. To know when the eighth note ends and when this middle between two counts is, you will have to add an “and” between the counts; therefore, your counting should be “1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and’.
Thus, when you hit on count ‘1’, you will know that the eighth note will last until the first ‘and’. Sixteenth notes are even shorter, and such a note will last for only one-fourth of a beat. This means that you will have to use a new counting system to make sure you know when the sixteenth note ends.
These notes are counted ‘1, e & a, 2, e & a, 3, e & a, 4, e & a’. You will thus know that when you hit on count ‘1’, the sixteenth note will end on count ‘e’. The bar will thus include sixteen notes that you will count, as shown in the image below.
Drum sheet music may also include repeat signs to reduce page turns as you can see in the following example:
Once you learn all of the above, you should be able to read a basic drum fill like the one below.
In this example, sixteen sixteenth notes make a bar. Counting them should be done as we’ve said earlier, that is, by using the ‘1, e & a, 2, e & a, 3, e & a, 4, e & a’ counting system.
The fill includes four parts, and each of them consists of four hits on the indicated drum. The first part is for the snare drum, the second part for the high tom, the third part for the middle tom, and the fourth part for the low tom.
Even if this is just an introduction to drum notation, it should help you read basic drum sheet music and get you started. Thankfully, there are many great sources available online, like the ones we’ve mentioned in the bibliography section and used for our article, as well as video tutorials that will show you when to hit and how to count.
Check them out and stick to the ones that best suit your learning style, and you’ll be able to play the drums even sooner than expected.