Here’s a thing. Some people that drum sheet music even exists – and that includes plenty of drummers.
But of course, sheet music exists for drums just as it exists for other instruments, and once you’ve learned to read and write it, it’s a skill that will put you head and shoulders above many drummers.
So how do you read and write drum sheet music? We’ve got you covered. There are some concepts to get your head around. Commit to that much, and we can get you the rest of the way.
Concept 1 - The Staff
The staff or stave is the visual representation of the universe of music. With the right notation, everything that can possibly be played, can be played on the staff.
The staff is simple to picture. Block off any five parallel lines in a ruled notebook. That’s your elementary staff. Five lines, each equidistant, one after the other. That leaves four spaces between the lines that make up the staff.
With a pencil and a ruler, you can make your own staffs on any blank piece of paper too. Once you have your staff, there’s one key piece of knowledge you need.
All the notes will be marked on the staff. Running left to right, their horizontal placement will tell you which notes come before others. Their vertical placement will tell you which drum or cymbal you’re hitting. Easy, right?
Concept 2 - The Drum Key, or Where To Place Your Notes
A drum kit is composed of drums and cymbals. Drums are represented as regular notes – usually black dots. Cymbals (including hi-hats) are represented as Xs. All the drum notes are placed in spaces – bar the rebellious mid tom. So:
- Bass: First space at the bottom of the staff.
- Floor Tom: Second space up.
- Snare: Third space up.
- High Tom: Fourth space up.
- Mid Tom: Fourth line up from the bottom.
- Hi-hat Foot: First space at the bottom.
- Hi-hat or Ride: The space on top of the top line of the staff.
Crash: The X is placed where the next line up from the top of the staff would be – and crossed through, as though intersected by that line.
The Hi-hat Foot and the Bass drum occupy the same space on the staff – but you can easily tell which to hit, because the drum is a dot and the cymbal is an X. The Hi-hat and the Ride sit on the same line too. Unless otherwise stated, always play the Hi-hat.
If you need a visual cue for which note belongs on which line or space, they more or less conform to the various heights of the drums and cymbals themselves.
Concept 3 - Time Signature
So you know what drums to play when you read each symbol. But…when? First of all – check the time signature. The what-now?
Big symbol, usually at the start of the staff. The symbol’s called a Clef, and the most likely for drum sheet music is a Treble Clef, which looks like an ‘and’ sign (&) had a curvy makeover. Next to the Clef will be something that looks like a fraction – two numbers, one on top of the other.
For now, don’t worry about the bottom number. The top number though is the number of beats to the bar. What’s a bar in drum sheet music?
Concept 4 - Bars
A bar is like a musical period, but in music, a bar is signified by…well, by a bar – a vertical line cutting down through the staff, dividing the piece into ‘sentences’ of music - bars. In a piece labeled 4-beats-to-the-bar, you’ll only ever have the four notes or drums to play in each bar.
So, imagine you have a piece of music that has 1200 beats in it. The whole piece is broken into 300 bars, each of which has 4 beats in it.
As a drummer, with a 4-beats-to-the-bar time signature, you only ever need to count the beat in each bar as you’re playing. It’s like reading a book one sentence at a time, rather than the whole thing at once.
Concept 5 - Drum Music Notes
We saw that each drum and cymbal has its position in the staff. That tells you what to hit. What tells you the timing of how you hit it is how the notes appear.
The whole note looks like an ‘o’ – a hollowed-out period. And in a 4-beats-to-the-bar timescale, it’s worth 4 beats of time – the full bar. Hit it, wait, wait, wait, obey the next bar.
The half note is an ‘o’ with a spine – and as the name suggests, it’s worth half the bar, 2 beats. Hit it, wait, hit it, wait, obey the next bar.
The quarter note is a period with a spine – or a golf club, if that’s your thing. Quarter notes, in 4 beat time, anyone? Yep, you got it – worth one beat. Hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it, obey the next bar.
An eighth note is a golf club with a single tail. And as you probably suspect by now, it’s worth half a beat, so in a bar which only contains eighth notes, in 4 beat time, there’d be 8…eighth notes.
And finally, the sixteenth note is a golf club with two tails. Worth a quarter of a beat, hence sixteen to a bar if they appeared alone.
That gives you a ready reckoner for the speed of the piece. Each bar has 4 beats in it – but they can be made up of any combination of these notes that equate to the 4 beats. Each type of note has its own time-value and particular look. So when you see a staff, you’ll see:
- The time signature in which the piece is written – eg, 4-beats-to-the-bar
- The drums and cymbals you’re hitting in every bar
- And the breakdown of what timing to use on each drum or cymbal
Concept 6 – Rests
Rests are periods where you do nothing. There’s a rest equivalent to each type of note. Whole note rests are small black rectangles hanging down from the fourth line up in the staff. Half note rests are the same oblongs but hanging ‘upward’ in the third space up from the bottom.
Quarter note rests look like a vertical bat signal down the staff. Eighth note rests look like fancy figure 7s, starting in the third space up, with their spines down through the rest of the staff.
And sixteenth note rests are eighth note rests, but with an additional horizontal stroke in the second space from the bottom.
Concept 7 – The Language Of Notes
We’ve said that if you play a whole note, you hit the appropriate drum on the count of 1 in the bar, then do nothing till you’re into the next bar.
If you play half notes, you hit the drum or cymbal on the counts of 1 and 3. Quarter notes, you hit on 1, 2, 3 and 4, and so on.
Eighth notes is where that seems to break down, no? 4-beats-to-the-bar – 1, 2, 3, 4. Where do you get the time to count eighth notes? 1, and 2, and 3, and 4, and-.
You just doubled the number of notes you can count in a 4-beat notation. Rocket science, isn’t it? But it’s what helps you play your eighth notes with the perfect, regular timing you need.
You can probably feel this coming, but sixteenth notes, each lasting just a quarter of a beat, mean you’re dabbling with baby-talk, but getting your rhythm right.
1, e, and, a, 2, e, and, a, 3, e, and, a, 4, e, and, a-
Gibberish, sure – but perfectly timed gibberish, which from a drummer’s perspective is all that matters.
Putting It All Together
You now have everything you need to know to read drum sheet music – and pretty much to write it too.
Step 1: Break down the drum and the cymbal parts.
Step 2: Decipher which beats are in which time – how many eighth notes, quarter notes, etc, there are in the bar.
Step 3: Read the whole piece, so you can get a feel of the drum part, as well as reading it.
Step 4: Play it. And play it. And play it again until you get it right, every time, counting as you go if you need to.
Once you can do this, you’ve more or less mastered reading drum sheet music. The only thing to add is drum fills.
Drum fills. Fills on any instrument are bridging sections between full-on musical phrases – attention-keepers, if you like, between The Main Bits.
Essentially though, you read them just as you read The Main Bits. If you have, for instance, a drum fill consisting of 16 sixteenth notes, it’ll be a fast bit of something fun on whichever drums it shows you by the placement of the notes, but still, essentially 16 sixteenth notes.
It’s worth practicing your drum fills – both classic ones, and some of your own invention – because if nothing else, they put a little mustard on your drumming, and make you seem like you’re doing something clever and instinctive with the rhythm and timing of the melody
Writing Drum Sheet Music
Writing down drum parts can be extremely useful. Say you get a drumming gig with a tight combo, and you have to learn their sounds in a hurry?
Writing the drum parts down once means you can practice them precisely as much as you need, rather than straining to remember everything they include.
The joy about learning how to read drum sheet music is that you can pretty much write it almost instantly – it’s built on the concepts we’ve outlined, so put them all together, and you can take the drum part in your head and put it down on paper.
There are easy drum notation programs that can help you too, like Musink and Tomplay.
Now you know all you really need to know to read drum sheet music, and to write your own. Sure, drums have the reputation of being a more ‘feel it’ instrument, but having these skills under your belt will always make you a better drummer.