Learning to play the drums can be a wild rush, but you need to contain and control your energy if you are to make progress.

While we’d all love nothing more than to sit down, drumsticks in hand, and let loose, this isn’t going to go well either for our progress with the instrument or our ears.

Just like with the guitar, though the temptation to channel your inner rockstar may be strong, you need to channel your energy into improving the right way.

What is the right way?

By sitting down and learning to read sheet music. If you take the time to figure out how to read sheet music you won’t regret it.

We know, it’s probably the last thing you want to do when you first start out with a drum kit, but it’s essential for the learning process. The same applies to other instruments, too, you’ll want to dedicate time to learn to read sheet music for the guitar, piano, and others.

Once you become familiar with drum notation, which shouldn’t take you too long, you’ll commit the language of drums to your memory so going forward you shouldn’t have any issues tackling new songs and developing your skills as a drummer.

Piano sheet music and guitar sheet music work much the same way, too, so if you learn sheet music now you prime yourself to learn other instruments later down the line. To make piano sheet music easy, you can even learn piano sheet music with letters in pop songs to make the process more enjoyable.

drums
Playing the drums is a blast, but you should spend some time learning to read sheet music to make the most out of them. Unsplash
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What are the Basics of Drum Notation?

We want to keep this simple so that you can take it in at a glance and get back to playing.

So, what are the first things you need to know about how to read sheet music for the drums?

Well, first up, drum notation isn’t exactly the same as the traditional sheet music that a guitar player or pianist would be used to seeing.

The main difference is that while sheet music presents symbols that represent various notes, drum notation has symbols that correspond to various parts of the drum kit.

As such, what you’ll be doing in the early stages of learning to read drum notation is getting to grips with what part of the drum your hands will need to be going to.

Just like with standard sheet music, drum notation uses a staff.

The Staff

The staff is one of the most basic units of a structure in all forms of sheet music, and it's the canvas upon which all the notes and symbols reside.

The staff is simply five horizontal lines, though the spaces between them are just as important as the lines themselves. However, you can have a line above and below the staff structure, which is known as a ledger line. The staff is divided up with bar lines, which go vertically, and indicate a separation.

In sheet music, the space between the bar lines is known as the measure.

This is a useful term to know as we’ll revisit it later when we talk about time signatures.

How do you Read Drum Sheet Music?

drum parts
You should learn the parts of the drums before you get started with sheet music. Unsplash

Now that you have a basic grasp of what you’re looking at, it’s time to fill in the staff with notes, and then take a look at how you translate what you see into what you then need to do with your hands.

To know what the different notes are and where you would find them on the sheet, you need to know the different parts of the drum, which are as follows:

Bass - The bass drum, or kick, is the first note and it resides at the bottom of the staff. This is the large drum that produces a low note, and can be used in conjunction with the foot pedal, hence the alternate name ‘kick’.

Floor Tom - The floor tom resides two spaces up from the bottom line, and also produces a low note.

Tom Drum 1 - The first of the tom drums occupies the space at the top of the staff, and is referred to as the high tom, which can help you remember its placement.

Tom Drum 2  - The second tom drum sits on the line below tom drum 1.

Snare Drum  - The snare resides in the second space from the top of the staff, and is one of the most used drums in a drum kit.

Ride Cymbal  - The ride cymbal occupies the top line in the staff.

Closed Hi-Hat  - The closed hi-hat sits just above the top line, and is often used as a tool to help drummers stay on time.

Open Hi-Hat  - The open hi-hat is in the same place as the closed hi-hat but has a circle around it to indicate that it’s an open note.

Hi-Hat Pedal  - The hi-hat pedal is beneath the bottom line of the staff.

Crash Cymbal  - The crash cymbal is a space higher than the hi-hat above the top line.

Just like in traditional sheet music, drum notation features various types of notes that you can play, which are as follows :

  • Sixteenth - The sixteenth note looks like a backwards ‘b’ with two lines at the top branching off like a flag. It is played for ¼ of a beat.
  • Eighth - The eighth note looks the same, but with just a single line branching off, and is played for ½ a beat.
  • Quarter - The quarter note looks like a backwards ‘b’ and is played for a single beat.
  • Half - The half note looks like a backwards ‘b’ but with an open circle and is played for two beats.
  • Whole - The whole note looks like an open circle, and is played for four beats.

What Else Do you Need to Know?

study sheet music
Studying sheet music you'll come across a number of different types of notes and signatures. Unsplash

There are other key pieces of information you’ll come across with drum notation, so it’s important to make sure you know exactly what they mean.

First, there are the time signatures.

Time Signatures

In all sheet music, time signatures serve the same purpose: to help the person playing the instrument maintain the right rhythm.

To recognise the time signature, simply look for the two numbers at the start of the staff on the left, which will be one atop the other like a fraction.

The number at the top gives you information about how many beats are in a single measure, whereas the bottom lets you know which note hits the bat.

For example, in the most commonly used time signature 4/4, you need to count up to four in your head over and over to maintain a rhythm with the song. In this time signature, you would hit the drum once every beat on the quarter note.

Repeat Signs

In drum notation, you’ll also have to brush up on the various repeat signs.

What are they?

Repeat signs are symbols that indicate that you need to play a repeat pattern.

There are three symbols that fall into this category, which are as follows:

Repeat

The repeat symbol lets you know that you’ll have to go back and play the section that you just played again. It’s much easier than having to write out the same series of symbols twice in a row, so you can understand why this symbol is necessary.

This symbol looks like two parallel vertical lines followed by a colon.

One-bar Repeat 

The one-bar repeat sign tells you that you need to repeat the measure you’ve just played for an extra measure.

This sign looks just like the percentage symbol so it should be easy to recognise.

Two-bar Repeat

The two-bar repeat sign tells you that you need to go back and repeat the last two measures before you go on.

This sign looks like a percentage symbol but with two lines instead of one. There will often be the number ‘2’ written above it, too.

How to Hit the Drums

Striking the drums isn’t as straightforward as whacking them with your sticks. There are various techniques for producing different sounds, so it’s worth dedicating some time to practising each.

Here are some of the most common techniques for striking the drums:

Marcato - The marcato technique refers to when you play a single note with more force than another, creating a certain sound.

Flam -  The flam technique is when you use both sticks to hit the same drum seconds apart.

Ghost - The ghost technique is about striking the snare drum lightly.

Drag - The drag technique refers to when you play two notes in quick succession with one hand on the drum, and then once with your other hand.

Cross-stick - The cross-stick is when you hit the rim of the drum by crossing the stick over.

Tablature vs Notation

Just like with guitar sheet music, with the drums, you can learn using either standard notation or tablature. If you prefer a more casual form of sheet music that’s more readily available online, then tablature, or drum tabs, could be a good option for you.

In the tablature style, you will be presented with horizontal and vertical lines as well as a host of characters.

Whichever style you choose, a tutor can help you guide you along the learning process.

With Superprof, you can find the right drum tutor for you, and work with them either in-person or online.

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