Drum Sheet Music: What it Is and How to Read It

drum sheet musicDrum sheet music is a little easier to learn than sheet music for other types of musical instruments, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to understand overall. It still takes quite a bit of skill, practice, and an understanding of basic musical theory in order to get it right. Fortunately, these are all things that virtually anybody can do, so long as they have a little time, practice, and the inclination to make good music.

If you are really serious about becoming a rock star – or a musician in any other capacity – then you could gain some real benefits by enrolling in this Udemy course on basic musical theory. However, if you are still unsure of just how much time and effort you want to devote to learning this instrument, then a good place to start is by learning a bit more about the instrument you are interested in.

About the Drums

There are many different types of drums, from those used in formal orchestras to the drum kits used in jazz bands and rock bands. While these instruments can be quite different in sound and in function, they all share one thing in common – they are percussive instruments and, except for certain types of drums, they do not produce distinct musical notes.

That means that when you read drum sheet music, you will not be looking for individual notes as you might with other types of sheet music for other instruments. Instead, what is important is the musical notes that are being portrayed and the rhythm that is being outlined in the music. Additionally, if a type of drum – such as a drum kit – contains several different types of drums (along with crash cymbals) the sheet music will mark these instruments in different ways so you know which drum or cymbal is being indicated n the music.

As drum kits are the most popular of the drums, this is the type of instrument that we will be focusing on in this article.

Sheet Music Basics

If you already know the fundamentals of reading sheet music, then you already have the basic skills that you need in order to move on and begin understanding how basic sheet music reading ability translates to reading sheet music for the drums. You can also take this Udemy course that will teach you how to read sheet music if you would like a more in-depth look at the way a typical page of sheet music is structured.

The first thing you will notice about a page of sheet music is that it consists of five lines and four spaces. For other instruments, these lines and spaces indicate the different musical notes that the musician would play. However, they represent something a little bit different for percussive instruments – we will get to that in a moment.

The next thing you will notice is that each page of sheet music begins with several symbols, including numbers, at the beginning of the piece. These numbers are crucial to pay attention to. This is the time signature, which indicates the rhythm and the number of beats per measure that the piece you are playing is in. (A measure is indicated by horizontal lines that separate the five lines, or the staff, into separate pieces).

The time signature looks like a fraction, with one note over another. The number on top is used to indicate how many beats occur per measure, while the bottom number indicates the length of each of those beats.

Let’s take a look at one of the most common time signatures, 4/4 time, to see what that means. In this case, the top 4 indicates that there are four beats per measure, and the bottom 4 indicates that those beats are quarter notes. (To conceptualize this, imagine yourself counting “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, etc.” in time to a piece of music. Here are some more examples to consider:

  • 3/4 Time: (Also referred to as waltz-time), this time signature indicates that there are three quarter-note beats per measure. (One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three…)
  • 2/4 Time:  You guessed it – this time signature indicates two quarter note beats per measure. (One, two, one, two, one, two…)
  • 6/8 Time: This one looks a little more complex. However, it’s a pretty common time signature, and one that you need to know. With this time, the eighth note – a note half the length of a quarter note – gets the beat, and there are six of these per measure. (You can think of it this way – one and two and three and one and two and three and….etc.)

Understanding the Different Types of Notes

That brings up another important point for would-be musicians to keep in mind as they begin learning musical notes and sheet music. Different types of musical notes appearing on a piece of sheet music indicate notes of different lengths.

This is not always as important to players of percussive instruments. After all, you can’t hold out a note for several measures as you can on an instrument such as a trumpet or even a guitar. However, there may be times when you are required to sustain a note or to perform a drumroll, and these lengths will be indicated on your music in the same way that a held note would appear for any other instrument.

The basic musical note with a single staff is a quarter note. A single staff with a “flag”, or a note that is connected by a single bar to another note is an eighth note. If there are two “flags”, or there are notes connected by two “bars”, these are sixteenth notes.

A triplet consists of three musical notes connected by a bar, and indicate a full beat that has been divided into three separate notes. (Think – one and a, two and a, three and a…)

A note that has a stem, but that consists of an open circle rather than a darkened circle, is a half note. An open circle with no stem is a whole note, and takes up the entire measure.

One thing to note is that many of the components of your drum kit will not use the standard musical notation, but will instead include “X” marks on stems. This is common with percussive instruments, as the X indicates that the particular instrument it is indicating is being struck. This is most common with instruments such as cymbals, which cannot be sustained. However, brackets and stems may still be used to indicate rapid, successive strikes of the instrument.

Identifying the Instruments in a Drum Kit on Sheet Music

The various instruments on your drum kit will be marked in different ways. Unlike what would be the case with sheet music for another instrument, such as a piano or a keyboard, the different notes’ positions on the sheet music indicate which part of the drum kit you are using to make sound at that particular moment. If there are multiple notes taking up the same spot in the sheet music, this indicates that several instruments are being struck or played at once.

The first instrument to take note of is the hi-hat. This is one of those instruments that is marked by only an X symbol attached to a stem on the sheet music. It will appear either just above the five lines of the musical staff, or it will appear just below them. If they appear on the top, the music is telling you to play the hi-hat with your drumstick. If they appear below the staff, the notes are indicating the hi- hat is to be played with the foot pedal.

Next, the ride cymbal. Like the hi-hat, it is marked on the sheet music with an X, in this case appearing in the space above the hi-hat on an imaginary line above the five lines of the staff.

The snare drum comes in next. The heart and soul of your drum kit, it’s not too surprising that the snare drum takes up the very center of the musical staff in your sheet music. It will be indicated with traditional musical notes a majority of the time. However, it may also appear as a black circle that has been filled in with an “X”. In this case, the music is indicating that you should play the snare with a technique that is known as cross-sticking. (You can check out this Udemy course on beginner’s drum technique if you do not know this method of drumming already.)

The bass drum takes up the bottom of the four spaces in the musical staff. In musical pieces meant to be played on a kit with two bass drums, the second drum may take up the space on the imaginary line below the musical staff. The notes of the bass drum appear as standard musical notes – not Xs.

The tom-toms can be the trickiest of the instruments to understand when it comes to reading drum sheet music. This is because the tom-toms appear in three separate spaces, and for those who are still new to sheet music can be easily confused with the snare. Just remember – the tom-toms will always appear in the spaces, while the snare will always appear on a line. These spaces are the top three spaces on the musical staff – the last of the four, of course, is occupied by the bass drum.

Putting it All Together 

Once you know the basics, all there is left to do is begin putting everything together. It really is much simpler than it may sound at first. All it takes is plenty of practice, as well as a willingness to go above and beyond to learn more about musical theory.

There are a few more things that you can keep in mind that will make your efforts to learn sheet music even easier. First things first – invest in a good metronome. As the drummer, your role in a band or musical group is crucial, as you are solely responsible for the rhythm of the entire group. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you are primarily in charge of keeping the beat and maintaining the tempo.

A metronome can help you to practice your ability to keep a beat, and will also enable you to develop a better understanding of different time signatures. The metronome that you invest in should have multiple settings – however, if you cannot afford a metronome at the moment, or aren’t yet willing to make that kind of investment, do be aware that there are online options that you can use to start getting some practice in. However, you will eventually want to move beyond an online service or an app.

Another thing to keep in mind is that no matter how tempting it can be to practice all the components of a piece of sheet music separately, it is always best to learn the entire piece of music all at once. Developing your coordination is key to your success when it comes to playing a drum kit. It can be a bit tricky to move from bass drum to hi-hat to tom-tom to snare and back again, but after you get over the learning curve, you will likely be surprised by just how natural it all seems.

Learning to play the drums is not easy, but if you are truly passionate about music you will definitely get a lot of enjoyment out of your new skill. Whether you want to play in a rock band, you are looking to build up your skills to produce electronic music (something you can learn more about in this great electronic music production course), or you are simply looking for a new hobby, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had when it comes to playing the drums. Check out this Udemy course that teaches drum kit skills to beginners if you would like to learn more about this incredibly fun and popular instrument.