The Key to Reading Drum Music (2023)

by Doug | 12 Comments

In order to unlock the super dark secrets of reading drum music (it’s really pretty easy), you’re going to need a key. And that key is knowing which drum or cymbal corresponds to which note on the musical staff.

With a tonal instrument like a piano or violin, the notes on the musical staff are linked to notes or tones on the instrument. But drums are different. Each note on the musical staff is associated with a drum or a cymbal.

The key that we use at LearnDrumsNow is similar to the key used by other drum set books and publications. If you memorize the position of the notes on the following key, you will be able read any drum music you’ll see:
The Key to Reading Drum Music (1)
Now The Key to Reading Drum Music (2)let’s apply the key to play a drum beat. But before we start, we need to learn a new sign on the musical staff: the repeat sign. When you see a repeat sign, go back to the previous repeat sign in the music or, if there is not another repeat sign, start at the beginning of the music.

Have a seat behind your practice drum set. You’re going to play a series of drum beats that you’ve played before, only this time you’re going to be reading the music to play them. Let’s start by playing quarter notes on the bass drum. Notice that the bass drum is always in the same space of the musical staff (the same space it’s in on the drum key, the lowest space).The Key to Reading Drum Music (3)
Follow the steps below which are similar to the steps you followed in “Your First Drum Beat (No Drums Required)” to read and play the music above:

  1. If you have a metronome, set it to 60 beats per minute. If you don’t have a metronome, find a clock that ticks seconds and get a feel for the length of each second.
  2. Quietly count out loud to four, one count for each second. Repeat counting to 4 over and over (1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4…) until you are counting exactly in time with the seconds. You are counting quarter notes.
  3. Add the word “and” between each count, keeping the count on each second like “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and…” You are counting eighth notes.
  4. Next add the words “e” and “a” (pronounced “uh”) and repeat the count of “1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a” until it feels comfortable. You are counting sixteenth notes.
  5. Now play your bass drum (right foot) on each quarter note (number count – one tap per second). Continue tapping your right foot until you can tap exactly on your count.
  6. As you play, read the two measures of music above. Notice how the bass drum is playing quarter notes, one beat per second.
  7. Congratulations! You can read music!

Okay, let’s add the left foot playing the hi-hat:
The Key to Reading Drum Music (4)

  1. Continue counting out loud and playing the bass drum on all 4 beats.
  2. Rock your left foot so that your heel comes down on “one” and “three” and your toes come down on “two” and “four.” Each time your toes come down, the hi-hat makes a “chick” sound.
  3. Watch the music as you count and play. Notice the hi-hat notes on 2 and 4.

Next, add the left hand playing the snare drum. It’s going to play with the hi-hat on 2 and 4:
The Key to Reading Drum Music (5)

  1. Continue counting out loud, playing quarter notes on the bass drum and playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4.
  2. With your left hand, play the snare drum on 2 and 4, along with the hi-hat.
  3. Notice how the snare drum, bass drum and hi-hat are all played together on 2 and 4.

Now add the right hand playing eighth notes on the ride cymbal.
The Key to Reading Drum Music (6)

  1. Continue counting out loud, playing quarter notes on the bass drum, and playing the hi-hat and snare drum on 2 and 4.
  2. Play eighth notes on the ride cymbal with your right hand. That means you’re playing the ride cymbal every time you say a number and every time you say the word “and.”
  3. Again, watch the music above as you play and count.

Now it’s time to apply what you’ve learned. Try playing the beat above to “My Best Theory” by Jimmy Eat World from the album “Invented” with Zach Lind on drums. For now, ignore the combination of sixteenth notes that Zach plays on the hi-hat at the beginning of the song and play straight eighth notes on the ride cymbal (just as written above).

The song tempo for “My Best Theory” is about 120 beats per minute (bpm) so it’s double the speed that you’re used to playing. Start at 60 bpm and gradually increase your speed until you can play with the song. Listen and play your bass drum exactly with Zach’s and the song will feel really good to play!

Great job!You now have the key to unlock the secret of reading drum music. When you see a piece of drum music, remember to break it down, and start reading and playing one part at a time. Start with the bass drum, then add the left foot, left hand and right hand. In the next section, you’ll learn how to play a cool pattern with the bass drum and read a sixteenth note fill.


Reading Feelings from Paper – How to Read Drum Fills »

(Video) How to read Drum Notation - Daily Drum Lesson

« How to Read Musical Notes and Rests

12 Responses to “The Key to Reading Drum Music”

    • The Key to Reading Drum Music (9)Doug says:

      October 12, 2013 at 9:09 am

      Hey Mayank, Thanks so much for your comment. Reading and writing music is like anything else: The more you do it, the better you get at it. Here are some other articles about the basics that might help: http://www.learndrumsnow.com/playing-music/5-key-parts-of-drum-music-notation
      http://www.learndrumsnow.com/playing-music/how-to-read-musical-notes-and-rests
      http://www.learndrumsnow.com/playing-music/reading-feelings-from-paper-how-to-read-drum-fills
      I also use Louis Bellson’s book to improve my sight reading:
      http://www.learndrumsnow.com/rd/ldnws91.htm

      I hope this helps!

  1. The Key to Reading Drum Music (10)Ricky says:

    March 9, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    (Video) ★ How To Read DRUM Music - Part 1 of 3 ★ Free Video Drum Lesson (Drum Notation)

    Wow Doug man.. Your Hope haz been accomplished indeed, thank u so much.. Now I’m so proud of myself being able readin’ drum-notes.. Never thought it’d be this easier.. Thanks Sir!

    • The Key to Reading Drum Music (11)Doug says:

      March 10, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      Hey Ricky, Thanks for the kind words. Glad I could help! Now that you know how to read, try sketching some songs.
      http://www.learndrumsnow.com/playing-music/how-i-learned-40-songs-in-2-days
      http://www.learndrumsnow.com/playing-music/the-magic-of-song-sketches

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. The Key to Reading Drum Music (12)Harp Singh says:

    December 5, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Hey Doug,

    Greetings from India!

    I play guitar and can sing a bit. I love recording few simple songs at home. What I always missed was a drums track. I decided to learn a few basic beats. After wading through a lot of websites I bumped into this one, and I’m glad I did. The articles are just perfect for a complete novice like me, providing all the information that I’ll need as I progress.

    I just wanted to say thank you for such a valuable resource to learn drums. Way to go.

    Regards,
    Harp Singh

    (Video) Drum Notation for Dummies

    • The Key to Reading Drum Music (13)Doug says:

      December 10, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      Hi Harp,
      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad that the LearnDrumsNow website is helping you learn some beats. Let me know how it goes!
      Doug

  3. The Key to Reading Drum Music (14)Corky says:

    October 14, 2016 at 4:10 am

    Doug as an “older” beginner I have found your LDN website to be invaluable in helping me get started on the drums! I am confused by the last example above tho! Your drum key at the top shows the “ride cymbal” notation splitting the top line of the staff and the closed hi-hat sitting on top – however the last example calls for the ride on the number & – it looks like the closed hi-hat note to me – what am I misreading?

  4. The Key to Reading Drum Music (16)William Salyers says:

    (Video) ❓ How to Read Drum Sheet | Basic Drum Notation

    March 13, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    Hi Doug,
    I have been playing drums for over 55 years and have toured the world backing many stars. While I can play to just about anything, I have not read music in that long either. Now (retired) I am helping my grandkids get into drumming. We are playing with a city sponsored marching/concert band. If I was behind the full kit, I could play whatever they threw at me… but by ear. Not reading the music. You have helped make it easy to re-learn all over again. What I still DO NOT remember or understand how to count is: Dotted notes. Dotted quarter – eighth and dotted sixteenth notes. Those are near caused for panic attacks. Ha. I want to re=learn how to read and play drum music before I die. Ha. It is a challenge I have set for myself. Happy drumming.

  5. The Key to Reading Drum Music (17)Daniel says:

    April 8, 2017 at 5:31 am

    I was always scared when I see those sheets with soo many signs. But reading is real fun and not as difficult as it looks..Thank you for giving me confidence. I see myself going all the way now…

  6. The Key to Reading Drum Music (18)vishal kandulna says:

    July 11, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    How i count different types of notes?

  7. The Key to Reading Drum Music (19)frank says:

    (Video) How To Read Drum Music Easy! Free Drum Lesson: (Paul Monroe)

    September 20, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    thanks doug ive been playing by ear for years now i can read a line of notes and play this is my first time even learning notes and knowing what im playing im going to practice and join and practice….thanks

FAQs

How do you read music on drums? ›

Like the English language, drum notation is read from left to right. The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces, but notes can be positioned above or below the staff as well. Notes are placed in the staff based on which part of the drum set should be played at any given time.

What is the 80/20 rule in drumming? ›

In other words, it's best to learn the basics of hitting the drums and cymbals, and playing the bass drum and hi-hat so you can quickly start playing your hands and feet together in a unified drum beat. Or, in other words, practice technique 20% of the time. Spend the other 80% of the time learning how to play songs.

How do you read drum beat notes? ›

In the time signature, the top number tells you how many beats are in each measure. The bottom number tells you the value of each beat. For example, 4/4 time has 4 beats per measure and each beat is worth one quarter note. 6/8 time has 6 beats per measure but each beat is worth one eighth note.

How do I get better at sight reading drums? ›

Like any other drumming rudiment, beat, and fill, sight reading is a skill that requires consistent practice. Try to read through as many different charts as you can get your hands on. Don't worry about perfecting them all — just map them out, follow the form mentally, and try to play through them the best you can.

How do drummers know what to play? ›

It is a preference. I've learned drumming by ear and I continue to learn new things by ear or videos. To learn a new track, a beat or anything else drummers who don't use sheet music listen to the thing for too many times. They listen to it casually,sometimes focused and they try to play it.

Can drums be self taught? ›

You can teach yourself drums if you have the dedication, discipline, and willingness to practice. This article goes through 7 great tips to get you started. There are many instructional videos and books that you can get your hands on. You can learn the basics of drums in the space of a few weeks.

Can I learn drums at 60? ›

The best age to start drumming is any age. Other articles might imply that younger is better, but this isn't the case. Anyone can learn how to play drums, whether they're 5, 15, 35, 60, or 75. As long as you have the time and energy to practice, you can do it.

How do you keep the time playing drums? ›

How Do You Fix the Timing on a Drum?
  1. Practice with a metronome or click track.
  2. Try practicing at different tempos.
  3. Alternate playing and stopping.
  4. Practice your fills.
  5. Play along to recordings.
  6. Record yourself playing.
  7. Try a time keeping app or drum time keeping software.
11 Jan 2022

Who is the 80/20 drummer? ›

Nate Smith is one of the most innovative and fresh-thinking drum instructors online, publishing free video lessons and resources for modern drummers on his website The 80/20 Drummer.

How do you memorize drum sheet music? ›

Memorizing drum scores
  1. Learn the tune & drum-hum. ...
  2. One part/tune at a time – and take your time. ...
  3. Getting rid of the score as quickly as possible. ...
  4. Naming the parts. ...
  5. Spend the time. ...
  6. Learning and incorporating dynamics when memorizing the drum score. ...
  7. Chips.

Can drums play chords? ›

No, because drums are not really meant to play chords. They are usually “atonal” because hitting a drum will produce frequencies that just lump into one big “mess” of a booming thud. Also consider that you only have two sticks to hit two drums, and two notes don't make a chord.

What each drum note means? ›

The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure. The bottom number indicates the size of the note that represents the duration of one beat. For example, in the time signature of 5/4, there are five beats in each measure and the quarter-note lasts for one beat.

What is reading music called? ›

Sight reading is the ability to play a piece of music that you've never played before simply by reading it off of a page of written music. In many ways, this skill is no different than an actor's ability to convincingly perform a section of dialogue by reading it straight off the page.

How do drummers remember songs? ›

Drummers tend to think in patterns, so a lot of the thought process is like “Sit out first verse. Enter with a crash cymbal and play this (minimalist, 4th notes-only) pattern until the bridge, then play that (busier, using that 16th note pickup to “one”) pattern.

Do drummers read music notes? ›

Drummers who start in a school music program will be taught how to read sheet music, but they may not have much experience learning and playing songs by ear.

How long will it take to learn drums? ›

If you want to play just for fun, you will need about three months to learn the basics, while to be able to play along with the music, you will need at least six months of practice. However, if you want to play with a band, it might take three years to master the skill.

How long should you practice drums a day? ›

A beginner drummer should practice at least 30 minutes a day, and an advanced drummer should practice at least one hour a day. If drummers practice these amounts of hours a day they will progress steadily and in time become proficient at their craft.

What is the easiest song to play on drums? ›

Best Songs for Beginner Drummers
  1. “We Will Rock You” by Queen, with drummer Roger Taylor. ...
  2. “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes with drummer Meg White. ...
  3. “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes, with drummer Steve Johnson. ...
  4. “Come Together” by the Beatles, with drummer Ringo Starr.

Are drums easier than guitar? ›

Yes, generally speaking, drums are harder than the guitar. Of course, to play at a professional level, both instruments require the same amount of work. But if your goal is to have fun with music as quickly as possible, the guitar is your best bet.

Do you read music to play drums? ›

Do you need to read music to play the drums? You don't need to read music to play drums. In fact, there are many professional (and legendary) drummers who don't read music, but who have made a career in music. If you can learn by listening and by 'feeling' the rhythm, reading music is just the cherry on top.

Do drummers read music notes? ›

Drummers who start in a school music program will be taught how to read sheet music, but they may not have much experience learning and playing songs by ear.

How do drummers remember songs? ›

Drummers tend to think in patterns, so a lot of the thought process is like “Sit out first verse. Enter with a crash cymbal and play this (minimalist, 4th notes-only) pattern until the bridge, then play that (busier, using that 16th note pickup to “one”) pattern.

How do you read music notes? ›

The top number tells you how many beats are in a measure, the space between each vertical line (called a bar). The bottom number tells you the note value (the length) of each beat. In the example above, the time signature is 4/4, meaning there are four beats per bar and that every quarter note gets one beat.

Do drummers learn songs by ear? ›

In addition to learning about technique, coordination, and a bit of music theory, drummers also need to train their ears to listen to music more analytically. Learning grooves and songs by ear takes practice, but there are particular elements to focus on, which ultimately make learning music much faster and easier.

Is drumming harder than guitar? ›

Yes, generally speaking, drums are harder than the guitar. Of course, to play at a professional level, both instruments require the same amount of work. But if your goal is to have fun with music as quickly as possible, the guitar is your best bet.

Why are drums so hard? ›

Out of all of the instruments, drums may be one of the hardest to learn. The reason is you have to use both hands and both feet to do different things at the same time. That requires good coordination skills and physical effort.

How long will it take to learn drums? ›

If you want to play just for fun, you will need about three months to learn the basics, while to be able to play along with the music, you will need at least six months of practice. However, if you want to play with a band, it might take three years to master the skill.

Why do drummers use laptops? ›

Artists of all genres regularly use laptops for backing tracks, keyboard and synth sounds, electronic drum tones, DJ stylings, video, and more — both in the studio and on stage. If you've never used a laptop onstage before, the prospect can seem intimidating — but making it work isn't as hard as it seems.

What is a ghost note in drumming? ›

In popular music drumming, ghost notes are ones played "very softly between the 'main' notes," (off the beat on the sixteenth notes) most often on the snare drum in a drum kit.

How do you remember drum patterns? ›

How To Memorize Your Drum Rudiments - Drum Lesson - YouTube

Do drummers follow sheet music? ›

Drummer: Sheet music is NEVER used in a drum circle. It's all about listening to each other and playing the rhythm you feel!

Do drummers improvise? ›

Most drum set playing involves some form of improvisation. This is true even in musical styles where drummers are required to play specific grooves or beats basically the same way every time. In those styles of drumming, drummers usually keep the same basic beat but improvise their fills.

What are the 7 notes of music? ›

In the chromatic scale there are 7 main musical notes called A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

What is the fastest way to memorize music notes? ›

10 Tips for Memorizing Music
  1. #1. Start small. This might go without saying, but building your memory is a process. ...
  2. #2. Use sight reading tips. ...
  3. #3. Play it through. ...
  4. #4. Use your other senses. ...
  5. #5. Visualize the music. ...
  6. #6. Watch your hands. ...
  7. #7. Write it down. ...
  8. #8. Hum, solfege, or hear the piece.
20 Jul 2017

Why can't I read music? ›

You may have a condition called musical dyslexia (also known as dysmusia) This is a similar condition to dyslexia but involves difficulty with processing music notes rather than words.

Videos

1. Drum Lesson 5: Reading Drum Music
(Uncle Tod's Drum Lessons)
2. Beginner Drum Lesson - EP3 - How to Read Drum Music
(Thom Mills Drums)
3. STOP Using Drum Tabs! Learn These Simple Notation Patterns Instead…
(Stephen Clark)
4. How To Read Drum Music - Learn to read a drum beat in 4 minutes!
(Drumbite)
5. How to Read Sheet Music for Drum Set
(Alsleum Music)
6. ★ How To Read DRUM Music - Part 3 of 3 ★ Free Video Drum Lesson (Drum Notation)
(www.DrumsTheWord.com)
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