"Reading is a skill that is vital to becoming a great drummer. It will open many doors of understanding and learning"

How To Read Drum Music aka Learning Rhythmic Notation Part One

Table of Contents

Reading Music? Why?

Beginning drummers often ask the question, “do drummers need to read music?” Or, “how is reading music for drummers different from reading music for other musicians?” Here, in Part 1 of this series on how to read drum music, we’ll talk about some of that, but our primary focus will be learning to understand and read rhythmic notation.

Reading is a skill that is vital to becoming a great drummer. It will open many doors of understanding and learning. I feel it is so important that if a student is not willing to learn how to read rhythmic notation, I will refuse to teach them. And don’t talk to me about Dennis Chambers and Buddy Rich, who are the famous exceptions to the rule. The vast majority of the greats do know how to read.

Rhythmic Notation? What Do You Mean?

I should mention that “how to read drum music” isn’t really a term that musicians use. It’s more of a “layperson” way of thinking of the idea of reading music for drummers, and it makes sense that the idea would be expressed as “reading drum music.” It’s more correct–in the world of music education–to use the phrase “reading rhythmic notation” instead of “reading drum music.” 

Rhythmic notation is the part of reading music that defines a system of reading and writing repeating pulses. These pulses can also be subdivided in different ways as music is being played, and rhythmic notation allows us to represent this on paper so that rhythms can be communicated in writing. The easiest way to think of this is to consider what happens when you listen to music and begin tapping your foot along with what you’re hearing. This tapping is what you do when you perceive the basic underlying pulse of the music, which most often is the “quarter note.” This quarter note is generally the basic unit of measurement in reading the most common western music.

If you wanted to write down what that pulse looked like, you’d need rhythmic notation to do that. This part of reading music has nothing to do with melody, or the different pitches or tones of music. So, for drummers who want to be able to read and write “drum music,” rhythmic notation is the place to begin.

Although rhythmic notation is the basis of reading music for drummers, it is also essential for anybody who wants to learn to read music for any instrument.

So How Does This Work?


In some ways, learning how to read drum music is easier than it is for other instruments, because–as mentioned above–the notation drummers need doesn’t have any melodic notes associated with it. That’s a whole lot of information that we don’t need to be concerned with.

Instead of thinking in terms of melodic notes (A, B, C, D etc..), drummers think in terms of what drums or cymbals they need to strike. Let’s start with an example:How to Read Drum Music

In the illustration above, you’ll see that the first note on the left (which is a quarter note, by the way) resides on the bottom space of the musical staff (the musical staff is that rectangle with five lines running horizontally across). The bass drum is usually assigned to that lowest space on the staff.

Next to that quarter note is another one with an “X” note head. It resides on the space above the top line of the staff, and that space is usually where the hi-hat is represented. Cymbals are usually represented by “X”s or “X”s within a circle, or asterisk looking note heads like the one all the way on the right in the illustration.

Moving one more note to the right: the note on the second space from the top represents a snare drum note. The snare usually sits on this space.

Finally, the note furthest to the right with a different looking note head, is a crash cymbal note. Crash cymbals usually sit above the staff, a little higher than the hi-hat and with a note head something like this one.

There will usually be a “key” like the illustration, which will show you how the different lines and spaces of the musical staff are assigned to various parts of the drum set.

Quarter Notes


So, for now, just know that the notes you see in that illustration are all quarter notes. Quarter notes are always represented as a single note head, with a single line extending from it.

Memorize This New Language


Memorize how a quarter note looks. Learning rhythmic notation is just like learning any new language. Remembering what these symbols look like and what they mean is just like learning the alphabet when you first learned to read and write English.

That’s it for this quick introduction to reading rhythmic notation for drummers. Next time, we’ll start explaining counting, time signatures and more details of reading quarter notes–those are the next step in learning how to read drum music.

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