"Most drummers start with a practice pad so they can practice quietly anyway."

Reading Snare Drum Music: A Starter Guide for Aspiring Drummers

When you’re just getting started with the drums, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Sometimes, the best way to deal with that is to break things down and keep it all as simple as possible.

That’s why I like to teach people about reading music by starting with the snare drum. It’s just one drum, so there’s a lot less to worry about, and we can really hone in on the fundamentals. That’s why today, I want to walk you through the bare essentials of snare drum music.

And by the way, if you don’t have a snare drum yet, just use a practice pad. Most drummers start with a practice pad so they can practice quietly anyway.

 

Table of Contents

Mastering Snare Drum Notation: A Comprehensive Guide

Written music is an infinitely complex topic, but before you let that intimidate you, it’s important to know that pretty much anyone can learn to read music. While you can write very complex things, it’s all built on simple basics, and those are easy to master.

Even better, starting with the snare drum (and/or practice pad) simplifies what you’re learning. There’s only one note on the snare drum (although you can add sounds as you get into more advanced music), so you only have to focus on rhythm. That makes snare drum the best place to start for many people.

Normally, I teach in terms of a whole drum set, but today, because we’re dipping our toes into such a vast world, I’m going to only talk about the snare drum. It will keep things that much simpler, and it will help us build a foundation you can use to learn to read music.

Quarter Notes

The first thing you need to learn to read snare drum music is the concept of a measure. When you look at sheet music, you might notice there are vertical lines every once in a while with notes in between those lines. The music in between any two lines is called a measure, and we use this concept to define rhythm. 

Each measure has a set number of beats in it. The vast majority of music has four beats in a measure, so we’re going to stick with that. But, it’s worth noting that you can get outside of this standard, and to do that, you would want to get into time signatures. I want to keep this simple, so everything we’re discussing today is in the 4/4 time signature. That means every measure has four beats in it, and it means that the quarter note counts as a single beat.

 

 

snare-drum-quarter-notes-bang-the-drum-school

Don’t worry; I’m going to walk you through all of this. First, I want to create the visual, so this is what quarter notes look like:

Take note of a few things in this picture. At the far left, you see two very close vertical lines. Those are the “clef,” and the vertical lines are telling you that you’re reading percussion music. We don’t need to worry about any other clefs today.

Right after that, you see two fours on top of each other. That’s your time signature that I already mentioned. Next up, we have four notes. Each of these is a quarter note. They’re easy to recognize because they have a solid bubble with a single stem.

Now, this picture is showing exactly one measure. Since we’re in 4/4 time, we need four total beats, and the time signature tells us that each of these quarter notes counts as one of those beats. In fact, that’s where the name comes from. A quarter note constitutes exactly one-quarter of a standard measure.

I’m throwing a lot of terms at you, so I want to ground all of this in a little context. Let’s talk about a song. Do you remember the song Seven Nation Army? If not, here’s a reminder.

When the drums come in, you can hear a low drum (actually the floor tom) hitting a steady beat. It’s very pronounced. In fact, when you watch the video, you can see the drummer, Meg White, hitting that floor tom to create those notes. And–yup–you guessed it. Those are quarter notes. 

When you tap your foot to a song, you’re tapping out the quarter notes. They are the fundamental beat in a song. And, you can count your quarter notes. If you count out a song, you’ll count 1, 2, 3, 4 in succession and repeat as the song goes.

Eight Notes

Now that you know what quarter notes are, we can talk about eighth notes. The relationship is mathematical (I know, I’m sorry to hit you with math). An eighth, as a fraction, is half of a quarter. Right? If you slice a pizza into four parts, you have quarters. If you slice those quarters in half, you get eighths.

Well, that works for music as well. An eighth note takes up half as much of a measure as a quarter note. In other words, eighth notes are twice as fast as quarter notes.

Imagine tapping out the beat of a song on your foot. Those are your quarter notes. Now, drum with your hands (alternating right, left, right, left) at double the speed. Your right hand lines up with your foot, on the beat, and your left hand hits exactly in between those beats.

Written, it looks like this:

 

eight-notes-snare-drum-bang-the-drum-school

How can you tell that these are eighth notes and not quarter notes? They’re connected by a bar at the top. If you just have one eighth note, you turn that bar into a tail (people also call that tail a “flag” or a “hook”). So, a quarter note has a solid bubble and a stem. An eighth note has a solid bubble, a stem, and a single tail.

 

symbol-for-eight-note-snare-drum-bang-the-drum-school

We can actually count eighth notes too. While the quarter notes get 1, 2, 3, and four, your eighth notes add the word “and” in between each numbered beat to keep the rhythm. So to count the example above, you would say (one and two and three and four and). It’s a convention that helps us drummers talk to other musicians about a rhythm while staying on the same page.

Sixteenth Notes

Next up we have sixteenth notes

Actually, I want to pause for a moment. If we weren’t focusing on the snare drum, we might be talking about very different notes like whole notes and half notes. Using the convention, can you guess what these are?

A whole note lasts for four beats, and a half note lasts for two beats.

But, a snare drum can’t exactly do that in the same way as other instruments, particularly wind instrunents. It’s not a tuba where you can just hold a note for a while. So, eventually, you’ll want to learn those notes, even for the snare drum, but in the beginning, the faster notes are much more common and applicable.

So, for now, we’ll just stick with quarters, eighths and sixteenths.

Getting back to the sixteenth note, it’s twice as fast as an eighth note. This is what it looks like on paper:

 

Comparing this to the other pictures, sixteenth notes look like eighth notes with an extra bar connecting them. Or if they’re alone, they have a second tail or flag.

 

If you look at the count, you can see the numbers and the “ands” that mark the quarter note and eighth note counts. Sixteenth notes add an “e” in between the first two eighth notes, and an “ah” at the end of the second eighth note. That’s how you get the faster rhythm.

If you want to hear sixteenth notes, one of the most famous examples of all time is the intro to Wipe Out. Technically, it’s not being played on a snare drum, but the rhythm is the same. You can hear the downbeats and how fast the sixteenth notes are in comparison.

Have a listen: 

And with that, we’ve covered some of the most important rhythms of snare drum music. Mastering music is a lifelong pursuit, so there’s plenty more to learn, but that’s enough for a single lesson. From here, I want to talk more about why you should invest the time and energy to learn all of this.

Do Drummers Really Need to Read Music?

There are a series of jokes that make fun of drummers. Usually, the gist of these jokes is that drummers are stupid and neanderthal-like creatures who just smash drums and other objects. It would follow–if you believe these jokes represent any sort of reality–that drummers can’t read music. But that’s not always the case. 

In fact most drummers that I know do know how to read music.

Of course, there are drummers in the world who play entirely by ear and don’t read music at all. In fact, we can think of a pair of extremely famous examples like this: Buddy Rich and Dennis Chambers.

They’re some of the greatest drummers of all time, and they didn’t read music, so do you really need to learn it?

Technically, you can play the drums without learning to read music. That’s absolutely a thing, and even if you do learn to read music, you’re still going to have to learn to play by ear. It’s an essential part of drumming.

Here’s the thing, though. If you want to be the best drummer you can be, if you want to explore music deeply and really unlock your potential and have an amazing time with it, learning to read music will help. It’s empowering.

I mean, do you really want to have to be at the level of Buddy Rich just to justify why you never learned to read music? That’s a high bar; one that’s going to be quite difficult to reach.

Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine that you’re taking a class to learn a foreign language. On the first day, you go up to the teacher and explain that you want to learn to speak the language, but you don’t think that you need to learn to read and write it. Do you think that will go over well? More importantly, do you really think that’s the best way to learn a language?

Music really is a language. It has standards and building blocks and tools and resources that you can use to hone your craft and express yourself and converse, directly in music, with other people. Reading music is a gift. It only expands your options, and if you’re going to spend time and energy trying to play music, why would you handicap yourself by refusing to learn to read?

The Powers Unlocked by Reading Music

I really want to emphasize this. When you learn to read music, it’s like getting cheat codes. You can learn new grooves and entire songs by reading a line. It’s typically a lot faster and easier than learning purely by ear.

You can also transcribe your own ideas onto sheet music. That makes it easier to remember what you did without having to create a recording, and it makes it easy to share your ideas with other musicians.

Some More Food For Thought

Hopefully, I’ve sold you on the merits of learning to read music. I want to wrap this up with a little more food for thought. I get a lot of questions from new students, and I want to cover some of the common ideas that come up here.

What Kind of Music Is Snare Drum Used For?

When we’re specifically talking about the snare drum, it’s everywhere. It’s an essential part of the drum set, which means you hear snare in rock, pop, jazz, country, hip-hop, and every other form of popular music.

It’s also standard in orchestras, so you’ll hear it in symphonies and classical.

If you ever watch a halftime show, you see entire lines of snare drum players on the marching field.

Snare drum fits in with pure electronic music, experimental music, and even sound effects. They use it to punctuate a joke at a comedy club.

It’s a versatile instrument, and once you start to notice, you’ll hear it everywhere.

What Songs Start With a Snare Drum?

You can really explore the impact of a snare drum by thinking about this question. There are a few standout popular songs that come in with a snare drum right away.

Rock With You by Michael Jackson hits you with the snare first thing.

Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin uses a snare/cymbal/bass drum combo to set the pace.

Superstition by Stevie Wonder uses the snare to introduce an excellent groove.

These are just a few examples, but if you listen for it, you’ll find snare drum intros in plenty of songs you already love.

Not to mention the countless songs that began with a drum beat and those beat almost always have snare drum in them.

So, yes, you’ll hear the snare drum everywhere in music.

Who Is a Famous Musician That Plays the Snare Drum?

As an aspiring drummer, you can look up to some of the legends and greats and try to learn from them. In fact, I can recommend a few to you for study, emulation, and pure enjoyment.

When I think of drummers who are great snare drum players, a few come to mind.

The first is Buddy Rich. The man is a legend for a reason, and he could work a snare with the best of them. Actually, he could play the snare drum better than anybody. In a drum battle, Buddy could destroy you by playing just on the snare drum.

Philly Joe Jones is another great. When you want to start expanding your chops and exploring rhythms and sounds, he’ll inspire plenty of ideas. And talk about technique. Philly Joe had incredible hand technique and he’d usually display that by playing on the snare drum

If you really want to hone in on just the snare drum while ignoring everything else, then one of the best to emulate is Rob Carson. One of the greatest snare drummers in the world of drum corps, you’ll be shocked at what this man can accomplish with a single drum.

Are Snare Drums Good for Beginners?

Snare drums are excellent for beginners. They represent a simplified way to look at music, and because of that, the snare drum is arguably the very best instrument for studying and mastering rhythm. And, as previously mentioned, you can substitute a practice pad for a snare drum frequently, and that will make things easier for you when you want to practice or if you don’t have access to a space where you can play the snare drum without disturbing your neighbors.

Many seasoned musicians will tell you that you should study the piano to learn the notes, but you should study the snare drum to learn the beats.

Free E-Book Gives You 5 Must-Know Drum Licks.

Enter your information below to receive your free digital copy of 5 Killer Drum Licks now.

You’ll also be added to our email list which is highly regarded as the most entertaining and helpful email list in the drumming community.