"We’ll see what the most common notes look like, what their values are and how they are related to one another."

How To Read Drum Music aka Learning Rhythmic Notation Part Two

Digging Deeper into Rhythmic Notation

Last time we discussed some of the overall concepts of reading music for drummers. We’re still going to be working on the basics here, but this time we’re going to dig a little deeper.

We’ll learn about the system that reading music resides in (measures, time signatures) and how that works. We’ll also look at an overview of the different notes–the actual rhythmic notation itself. We’ll see what the most common notes look like, what their values are and how they are related to one another.

All of that is laid out for you on this handy sheet that you can download and print out. Here it is as a PDF: The Table of Time.

By the way, if you want to review the first lesson in this series, it’s here: How to Read Drum Music aka Reading Rhythmic Notation Part One

Here’s what’s on the agenda:

  • Measures
  • Time Signatures
  • The Table of Time

Table of Contents


Measures (also known as “Bars”) are really just a way to divide rhythms and musical notation up into sections so you can digest them. One of the definitions of the word measure according to Webster’s Dictionary: “a standard unit used to describe the size, amount or degree of something.” That gets at the idea, but for music, the definition is even more specific.

A more precise definition is offered on Wikipedia: “In musical notation, a bar (or measure) is a segment of time corresponding to a specific number of beats in which each beat is represented by a particular note value and the boundaries of the bar are indicated by vertical bar lines. That’s actually a good definition. But, in English, please!

Another, simpler way to look at it: those rectangular boxes with lines running horizontally across them containing notes? Those are measures. Less elegantly stated, yes, but also correct. And yes, they contain a certain number of beats and therefore represent a certain amount of time, but we need Time Signatures to help us understand how many beats are contained in each measure.

Time Signatures

While a measure is the physical space where the notes reside in our system, the time signature defines the math of that system. It tells you how many notes fit into the space of the measure and how to count them. Most of the most popular music in the world is written in 4/4 (spoken: “four four”), so let’s deal with that first.

If you’ve heard Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born To Run,” you’ll probably recall him shouting “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” at the end of the quieter breakdown section, bringing the band back in at full throttle. Bruce’s counting of those numbers is his way of telling the band: 1) when to come in, 2) what the tempo is and, 3) what the time signature is. That count tells the musicians that the time signature is in 4/4 time.

So, what is 4/4 time? What does it mean?

A time signature is expressed as a fraction and the numerator (the top number of the fraction) tells you how many beats there are in a measure. The denominator (the bottom number of the fraction) tells you what the unit of measurement is. The “unit of measurement” part of this is what usually confuses people. The unit of measurement is the type of note that makes up the “pulse” of the music. The thread that goes through the music is the beat that you can count throughout it. In 4/4 music, the unit of measurement is a quarter note–hence the “four.”

So, in 4/4, there are four beats in a measure, and the unit of measurement, or the note that represents each of those beats is a quarter note. In the “Table of Time” PDF, the third measure from the top, which has four quarter notes in it, is the literal definition of what 4/4 time is.

The time signature is shown at the beginning of a piece of music and may show up in the middle of chart again to signal changes in the time signature (for example, a song might go from 4/4 to 7/8 and back).

The Table of Time

Here we give you a diagram of many of the key notes/symbols you’ll see in the world of rhythmic notation. It’s a tree of rhythm, based on a measure of 4/4 time. The value of each measure is the same, we’re just subdividing each one into more and more notes. This page is not exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

The Concept of Pulse and Counting Out Loud

The overall idea here is that the quarter note represents the underlying pulse of the music. The tempo is not represented in any way by these notes. What matters is that the space between the notes is consistent within the chosen tempo. The tempo can be slow or fast. The choice is yours. However, in order to learn these rhythmic figures, it is a good idea to start slowly. Let’s pick a pretty slow tempo to work on this….say 60 beats per minute on your metronome. If you turn on your metronome at 60, in order to count the quarter notes, you just say the numbers “one” “two” “three” and “four” in unison with the clicks on the metronome. That is the basic notion of pulse and the simplest version of counting.

Counting is very important. Learning to count will guide you and allow you to know where you are in the music and understand what you are doing rhythmically. It might seem boring at first, but it’s an essential skill and if you’re reading this article, you probably already know this.

On the PDF, the verbal counting mnemonics are written below the rhythms. When counting the mnemonics, just say those syllables out loud when reading or playing the notes. You’ll have to memorize the mnemonics for each type of note. You’ll also have to memorize what each note looks like.

This is our new vocabulary. It works like any new language. Learn to recognize the symbols and what they sound like; then commit them to memory.

Let’s walk ourselves through the PDF, “The Table of Time.”

Whole Notes

A whole note takes up the entire measure. It’s symbolized by an open circle. To play that line on the PDF, you’d strike a drum on beat one and then that’s it–a whole note fills up the entire bar. You’d strike your stick on beat one and then count “two” “three” and “four” without playing anything else.

Half Notes

Half notes are–you guessed it–worth one half of the measure. So in this case–on our PDF–they fall on beats “one” and “three” and beats “two” and “four” have no activity. You’d strike the drum (the default drum here is the snare–the second space from the top of the staff) on beats “one” and “three” only. Half notes have a stem and an “open” note head.

Quarter Notes

Now, we strike our drum on every numbered beat, “one” “two” “three” and “four.” This measure is the literal definition of the 4/4 time signature–it has four beats (the numerator) and the unit of measurement or basic pulse is a quarter note (the denominator =”4″ = a quarter note). Quarter notes look like what you see on the PDF: a single stem with a filled-in note head. And they’re easy to count: you just say, “one” “two” “three” “four” as you strike each note.

Eighth Notes

Now, we’re branching out from the basic pulse of four from the quarter notes. If we decide to play two notes in the space of each quarter note, we’re playing eighth notes. The counting here is simple: “one” “and” “two” “and” “three” “and” “four” “and” is the count representing each note in the measure. Notice the numbered counts are the same as the quarter notes were counted. They are, in fact, the same notes–they’re just followed by another note in this case, and now they’re part of this new eighth note grid. The notes look like quarters but with the addition of a horizontal line (called a “flag”) across the stem. The shorthand way to write the mnemonics: “1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +”

Eighth Note Triplets

These figures are what you get when you divide the space of each quarter note into groups of three. To count them, simply say “one” “trip” “let” “two” “trip” “let” etc. as you play or read them. The shorthand way to write this mnemonic: 1 T L, 2 T L, 3 T L, 4 T L.

Sixteenth Notes

Now we split the eighth notes in two, doubling the number of notes within each pulse of the quarter notes. We get four notes per pulse, or a total of sixteen in a bar of 4/4 time. The symbols are easy to recognize: each note has a closed, black, filled-in note-head, and the stem has two lines (flags) across it. Again, memorize this. The mnemonics you’ll speak when counting: “one” “e” “and” “ah,” “two” “e” “and” “ah,” etc… The written shorthand for this: 1 e + a, 2 e + a, 3 e + a, 4 e + a.

Sixteenth Note Triplets

In the seventh measure down from the top of “The Table of Time,” we have sixteenth note triplets, which are groupings of six notes that fit into each quarter note pulse. When you double eighth note triplets, you get sixteenth note triplets. Accordingly, the notes are recognizable as sixteenth notes grouped in “sixes” (see the “six” above the groupings). The first and fourth note of each group of six also lines up exactly with each eighth note shown in the fourth line/measure from the top. The counting appropriately hints at this: “one” “trip” “let” “AND” “trip” “let,” “two” “trip” “let” “AND” “trip” “let,” etc. The shorthand for writing the mnemonics: 1 T L + T L, 2 T L + T L, etc.

Thirty Second Notes

Finally, the last line at the bottom of the page shows us what thirty-second notes look like. There are eight notes in each quarter note pulse, and thirty-two in a bar of 4/4 time. You’ll notice that the notes have three flags. As for counting, I’ve never found any method for counting all of the 32nd notes to be helpful–they go by to fast. Instead, I simply count the sixteenth notes underlying the 32nd notes (thirty-second notes are just sixteenth notes doubled). So, I just count the sixteenth mnemonics and play two notes for each syllable I speak.

Alright! That’s it for Part Two. Next time, we’ll get into more detail with quarter notes and eighth notes and we’ll introduce rests.


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