How To

How To Read Drum Music – Understanding Drum Notation For Beginners

Learning how to read drum music can be daunting, but it’s easier than you think! Let us help you master the path to learning drum sheet music and tabs.

Learning how to read drum music doesn’t have to be hard!

In this article, we’ll discuss how to read music written for the drums and varying drum scores, focusing primarily on drum sheet music for beginners - whether it’s just the snare drum or the entire set.

Snare Drum Music

We will start our discussion of reading drum music with how to read snare drum sheet music. This is easier since we are only dealing with one single instrument vs. the multiple parts of a drum set.

Clef & Time Signatures

The first thing that you’ll notice on drum sheet music is the clef. For drum and percussion sheet music, this clef looks like a vertical rectangle. This is used for non-pitched percussion instruments.

how to read drum music clef

The next thing you need to identify is the time signature. This is the notation with two numbers that is written on the left of the sheet music.

time signature image

This indicates the time signature that will be used for whatever music you are playing, and as a drummer, this is super important, as this determines the rhythm you should be thinking of in your head as the backbone of whatever beats and notes you fill this time with.

The most common time signatures are 4/4, often noted as common time or C, and ¾ time. Things can get a bit more complicated when you introduce other time signatures, such as 5/7, but we will leave that for another lesson! The top number represents the number of beats in a single measure. The bottom number indicates the size of the note that represents the duration of one beat.

For example, in common time, there are four beats in a single measure, the top four, and the quarter-note lasts for one beat. Time signatures can get extremely complex and interesting, but you should know what these numbers mean in the context of your drumming.

Note, Rest, and Repeat Notation

Now, what do different notes and rests look like? Let’s take a look!

drum sheet notes and rests

If you ever notice a rest or a note with a small dot written next to it, this means that that individual note will last 50% longer than whatever length it is written for.

If there is a dot next to a quarter note, the note will last one and a half beats. A rest with a dot next to it that originally lasts for two beats now lasts for three.

As seen above, notes and rests last for different duration's of time. This is important in drumming, as the length of these notes is directly related to the rhythm, your role in playing drums.

You might also notice weird symbols and hear your director or bandmates reference a repeat. What does that look like on sheet music?

repeats drum music

As seen above, repeats can occur for a single bar, two bars, or multiple bars. Repeats are used in sheet music to minimize writing the same part multiple times. Now that we have a better understanding of sheet music in general, let’s see how this applies in the context of drum notes, and drumset notation.

The Importance of Rhythm and Reading

As previously mentioned, drum sheet music can be daunting to tackle at first, but if anything, take a deep breath. Realize that we as drummers have the luxury of not having to worry about pitch, allowing us to focus only on rhythm.

Now, don’t let this luxury fool you! This does not mean that we aren’t musical or that drums are one-dimensional. This also doesn’t mean that drums are easier to learn than other instruments that utilize pitch. Take a look at our article on Are Drums Hard to Learn? to get a better idea of what I mean. 

It actually means the opposite; once you have utilized the rhythm template that is provided to you on the tab or sheet music, you must express yourself musically and creatively within those notes.

Drum Set Notation

As a side-note, we will be using 4/4 time for the remainder of the article for the simplicity of explaining in common time. So, what does drum set notation look like? Here is a quick notation key referencing each note and what it will look like on your sheet.

drum set notation

Keep in mind that this is the general and most basic form of drum set notation. If you have a more complex kit, you can adapt the notes of the toms based on their pitch.

With the most basic drum beat, you will be looking at three different notes - the hi-hat, bass drum, and snare drum. In 4/4 time, your hi hat will be acting as the backbone in eighth notes with your bass drum on the 1 and 3 with the snare drum on the 2 and 4. 

It will look something like this:

drum beat notation


Start off with the basics first. Use eighth notes for the hi-hat, and if you’re comfortable, start splitting the beat into more complex patterns of sixteenth or even thirty-second notes. Once you get comfortable utilizing these splits and faster notes, you can switch it up and use triplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, or even sextuplets.

So, how do you become a better drummer by utilizing drum sheet music? It’s quite simple. You can use already written music and play along to that music. Or you can be creative and write your own parts to your favorite songs and music. 

Essentially, you can think of each time signature as an empty space that you fill in as you see fit. Now, then you might be wondering, am I even ready to start writing my own drum music?

Of course! There’s no level of expertise necessary to begin. Sure, the more experience you have, the more creative you might be, but there is nothing to say that you can’t make your own music. Often times, simple is better anyway.

How Can I Utilize Drum Notation Software?

We recommend that you use the site GrooveScribe. It allows you to not only change time signatures, but also write parts in reference to different notes.

For example, you can choose 4/4 time and write parts in reference to different notes, such as ⅛ notes, 1/16 notes, 1/32 notes, or even ⅛ triplets or 1/16 triplets, or other mixed divisions. This allows you to not only visualize what different beats look like, but also hear what they sound like. 

Using this method can help you put different ideas you already have onto paper, but can further expand your creativity, as you can make ridiculously complex beats. You can also overlay any beats you create with a metronome feature, even with an option for swing beats. 

Having a site like this make the practicing process super easy, and now you can practice even without a drum set, as previously outlined in our article about this topic. You can now air drum along with the beat you’ve created! 

Now that we’ve provide a very brief discussion on how to read drum tabs and the creative process that underlies drumming, we should answer one of the biggest questions you probably have about drum music...

Is Reading Music Necessary?

Do you need to read music to play drums? The quick answer is no. You can obviously learn to drum without necessarily knowing how to read music. Does this mean that this is not an useful skill? The answer to this question is also no.

Having the ability to read and write drum music can greatly expand your creativity and understanding of the different styles of drumming available. You no longer have to rely solely on your imagination. You can utilize previously written music as a template and slowly tweak these parts to make them uniquely your own and better fit your playing style.

In other cases, you can read a drum tab and play along to a song exactly as your favorite drummer does, learning from and imitating their technique and playing exactly. Regardless of how you utilize your ability to read music, it‘s an important skill that is not difficult to learn but can be an extremely helpful tool in furthering your craft on the drums.

You might be asking yourself… you’ve convinced me to learn how to read and write music, but where do I go from here? Well, you can start by developing your own music and parts to drumless backing tracks. Once you’ve created a groove, practice writing the notation down properly and see what comes out of this process.

Where do I find these drumless backing tracks? Check out our article on Where to find the best drumless backing tracks. You might be surprised at how complex your playing style already is and find it difficult to actually write what you play as second nature onto sheet music.

Enjoy the Process!

Learning how to read drum sheet music is a wonderful tool that can be utilized to expand your creativity, learn and grow from the technique of other influential drummers, and ultimately improve your drumming.

Although it is not the easiest of skills to develop, as with all drumming, you have to start somewhere. There is no point in beating yourself up for not already being the best when that isn’t the reason you picked up drumsticks in the first place.

Take it one step, one rudiment, one beat, one fill, one song, and one setlist at a time. We wish you the best on your individual drumming journey and hope we can provide you with more resources along the way to improve your drumming!