Whether you are into a heavy-metal style of drumming, classic jazz, or timeless orchestra, being able to read sheet music is a useful skill to have. Not only will it help you play better and more accurately, but it will also enable you to play songs you have not even heard of before.
If you are having trouble with synchronization during band play, knowing how to read sheet music will help solve your problems. This is just one of the many benefits of learning how to read drum sheet music. There is definitely more!
Read on and learn the basics of how to read drum sheet music.
How to Read Drum Music
Drum sheet music is a little bit different from piano or voice sheet music. Sheet music may be based around the same measures. However, when it comes to drum sheet music, there are a few additional notations that you may not know yet.
In this section, we will go through the basics of reading music such as the staff, signatures, and notes of drum sheet music. Additionally, we will also tackle the unique notations and repeat signs you will encounter when reading drum sheet music.
Basics: The Staff
Drum sheet music has a similar staff to every other music sheet. Its staff contains five lines and four spaces. What sets it apart is its clef and what each note on the staff represents.
A part of the staff is the clef. For percussion instruments, the clef used is the percussion clef. This is how it looks like:
A percussion clef is illustrated by two bars starting from the second line of the staff and ending on the fourth.
Right after the percussion clef, you would find the time signature.
The time signature tells you two things. The top part tells you how many notes will fit in a measure. See the vertical lines scattered equally through the staff? Those are called bars and are meant to signify where a measure ends and begins.
In a 4/4 time signature, the top part tells us that there will be four notes in each measure.
The bottom part, on the other hand, tells us about the value of a whole note. To understand this better, let us take a look at the different types of notes.
Here are the most basic notes. We have the whole note which usually sustains for 4 counts. It is followed by the half note which sustains for half the time of a whole note. The quarter note sustains for a fourth of a whole note. Lastly, an eight-note sustains for an eighth of a whole note, and a sixteenth note sustains for only a sixteenth of it.
The number at the bottom of a time signature is the number of beats there are in a whole note.
Basics: Drum Notation
Now that you know what the staff, clef, time signature, and value of notes for drum sheet music is, it is time to learn about the different notations used when writing sheet music for drums.
Drum sheet music notation is a little bit different than the usual notation found for other instruments.
When it comes to drums, the place of each note on the staff represents a different part of the set.
- Bass Drum – The notation for the bass drum is on the first space from the bottom of the staff. In a complete set, it is the biggest drum and is used by stepping on a pedal. The bass drum is also referred to as the kick drum.
- Floor Tom – The notation for the floor tom is on the second space from the bottom of the staff. It is the second-lowest drum on the set and is referred to as floor tom because it can be set on the floor with its legs.
- Tom Drums 1 and 2 – The first tom drum’s notation sits on the fourth space from the bottom of the staff. On the other hand, the second tom drum’s notation is on the fourth line from the bottom of the staff. This drum is also referred to as the high tom. It produces a higher sound than both the floor tom and the bass drum. Most drum sets have more than one tom drum. It is where drum fills often start!
- Snare Drum – The notation of the snare drum sits on the third space from the bottom of the staff. In drums, the snare drum is often referred to as the main drum of the set. You will often hear drum beats based on the patterns between the bass and the snare drum. It got its name from the snare wires that are attached to the bottom of the drum.
- Ride Cymbal – The notation of the ride cymbal is on the fifth line from the bottom of the staff. This cymbal is the biggest in a set. It is tapped by the tip of the drumstick to create a “riding” feeling, hence its name. It can also be used as a crash cymbal.
- Hi-Hat Cymbal – The hi-hat cymbal has two types of notations. Before we get into them, it is important to know that the hi-hat cymbal has a pedal. When a drummer steps on this pedal, it tightens the cymbals together creating the closed hi-hat. The closed hi-hat’s notation is on the space right above the staff. On the other hand, if a drummer releases the pedal, it causes the cymbals to bounce lightly against each other when hit. This is called an open hi-hat. The open hi-hat’s notation is on the same space but if you look at the image of the notes, you will see that there is a circle around the symbol of an open hi-hat.
- Crash Cymbal – The crash cymbal is used to accent rhythms within music. They are very loud and can be played aggressively as it helps the music become more dynamic. Crash cymbals can vary in styles and sounds. The notation of a crash cymbal is a space above the hi-hat cymbal’s notation. In drum sets with two crash cymbals, you will find the notation for the second crash cymbal right above the first.
Basics: Repeat Signs
Now that you know the symbols and notations of drums when transposed to sheet music, let us now take a look at repeat signs.
Many drum parts are played like a pattern. That is why you will be seeing these symbols a lot.
- Repeat – A repeat sign is as simple as it gets. Once you see this on your sheet music, all you have to do is go back to the beginning of that part and play it again.
- One-bar Repeat – The one-bar repeat, as suggested by its name, means you have to repeat the previous measure.
- Two-bar Repeat – The two-bar repeat, similar to the one-bar repeat, means you have to repeat the last two measures.
Aside from the notations of the drums on staff, to read drum sheet music, you will need to be able to read how drumming techniques are notated on the staff.
- Accent Drum Technique – The accent technique, as the name suggests, is the ability of a drummer to accentuate a part of the rhythm by making it louder, softer, higher, lower, or using an entirely different part of the drum. The accent symbol is seen right above the note that needs to be accented.
- Mercato Drum Technique – The Mercato technique is when you play a part of the rhythm louder or more forceful than the ones surrounding it. Similar to the accent drum technique, the Mercato symbol is seen right above its corresponding note.
- Ghost Note Drum Technique – Ghost notes are light, bouncy notes often played on a snare drum. It can sound similar to several notes played in quick succession. This note is used in a beat to create dynamic movements and can be played by both hands.
- Flam Drum Technique – The flam drum technique is executed when a drummer hits the same drum with both hands. This creates the illusion of hearing only one note when there are two played very quickly in succession.
- Rim-Click Drum Technique – This technique is also often called the cross-stick technique. It is used in soft, quiet pieces of music and is created by placing the stick across the drum and tapping its rim.
- Drag Drum Technique – The drag drum technique is executed by playing two notes very closely in succession and then adding a single stroke using the other hand. Often, the final note in this technique is accented to create a complete sound.
Now that you know different drum techniques, it is time to understand different cymbal techniques! Just like drum techniques, there are different ways for you to hit the cymbals, and all of these will be notated in your sheet music.
That is why it is important to know what the symbols for these cymbal techniques are.
- Crash Bell Drum Technique – To perform the crash bell drum technique, you need to be able to play the specific note loudly. Often, drummers use the shoulder of their drumstick to bring out the volume of the bell.
- Choke Crash Drum Technique – The choke crash technique refers to the move where a drummer mutes the cymbal right after it has been hit. This creates a shorter sound that does not reverberate.
- China Drum Technique – Often, this technique is used as an alternative to loud crash cymbals and is used to accentuate loud pieces in sheet music.
- Splash Drum Technique – The splash cymbal is a small cymbal that creates short light sounds. Hitting this cymbal creates dynamic patterns in music.
- Open Hi-Hat Drum Technique – Used in loud sections of music, the open hi-hat technique is created by taking your foot off the hi-hat pedal and then hitting them. This allows the cymbals to bounce against each other, creating an extended reverberating sound.
- Closed Hi-Hat Drum Technique – The closed hi-hat technique is the opposite of an open hi-hat technique. Here, you put your foot on the pedal of your hi-hat cymbals before hitting it. Doing this creates a short and crisp sound.
- Loose Hi-Hat Drum Technique – Meeting midway between an open hi-hat and a closed hi-hat, you have the loose hi-hat technique. By stepping lightly on the pedal of your hi-hat cymbals and then hitting them, you create a sound similar to an open hi-hat but not as long.
Easy Drum Sheet Music Exercises
Here are easy exercises with drum sheets:
Let us start it out with a basic rock beat. This quick and easy exercise will help you learn how to isolate your drum set parts based on sheet music alone. Here is your sheet music:
Looking at this sheet music, you will be able to see three parts of your drum set.
First, you have your cymbal notes that are to be played on your hi-hat. Second, you have notes located in the third space of your staff. This means that these notes must be played on your snare drum. Finally, you have the low notes that are to be played on your bass drum.
Try playing this quick tune and see if you can get a hang of it!
This second exercise is going to be a little fast. Here is your sheet music:
As you can see, it is filled with sixteenth notes. This means you will have to play them very quickly. Do not worry, as this is very easy. Once you start playing it, you will realize that, too!
To do this, you have to make four fast hits on your snare drum and then with the same speed, four hits on your high tom. Keeping the same speed, hit your middle tom four times, and end the exercise by hitting your low tom four times.
Now, try to play this as fast as you can!
Writing Drum Sheet Music
If you would like to dabble in music production or write your own compositions, you must learn how to write sheet music. Knowing how to read music should make this easier for you.
However, if you are a bit meticulous like me and like to keep your sheet music clean and tidy, then there are free resources that make it much easier and much legible to write sheet music.
This notation software called Musink (1) makes it so much easier to write sheet music.
It helps you keep your sheet music organized and neat and also has a playback option so you can check if you are still writing the right notes. With a few clicks, you will be writing sheet music like a pro!
Even without a premium account and only using the free version of the program, I can write sheet music with a few clicks!
Tips on Reading and Writing Drum Sheet Music
Before we end this article, I would like to go over a few tips to help make studying sheet music a little bit easier and more manageable even if you are self-studying.
- Break it down into bite-sized pieces. Looking at all the symbols and all the information listed on sheet music can get overwhelming. This is why it is important to take things little by little. You will need to be patient with yourself especially when you are just beginning to learn how to read and write sheet music. Take it one measure at a time if you have to. Many drummers take years before they can master reading sheet music, but the result is worth the time and practice!
- Practice makes perfect. To continuously improve your reading skills and speed, you will have to keep doing it. The more you do it, the more your brain gets used to seeing the same symbols and associating them with their meanings. Set aside around thirty minutes to an hour each day just practicing to read sheet music and testing the sounds on your drum set.
- Take lessons. It does not matter whether you want to take traditional lessons or online drum lessons. Having a guide makes it much easier to learn how to play an instrument and all the things that come with it. Self-studying is nice and many people can do without taking lessons. However, taking lessons will simply expedite your learning process and give you insight from a different perspective. If you can afford them, definitely look into getting some lessons! You may check some of the online drum lessons review and pick what lesson is best for you.
- Set goals. Achieving goals give you a sense of self-fulfillment. The feeling of fulfillment is a great motivator. It is much easier to function when you are motivated by something! This is why it is a good idea to set small stepping-stone goals that you can reach in a week or so. By doing this, you will be able to see that you are making progress!
That is how you read basic drum sheet music! Don’t forget to incorporate sheet music reading in your daily practice, and you will be able to read them on sight in no time!
Drum Sheet Music: How to Read & Write for Beginners (+ Drum Notations)