How To Read Drum Sheet Music

Learn to read!

You want to be able to play drum grooves and fills from drum notation because learning how to read drum sheet music will help you to learn faster and develop all round as a drummer and musician. You will probably be surprised at just how many of your favorite drummers read drum music too.

The best place to start is by taking a look at the symbols used and how they are written out in music notation to represent the different drum set names.

Before we even get to actually reading drum music let us first look at how music in general is written out. All music is written on what is called a FIVE LINE STAVE (sometimes referred to as a STAFF). Musical symbols are placed either on the line or in a space to represent which element of the drum set is to be played.

Below is an example of a five line stave. The vertical lines are called a bar lines and space between each bar line is called a bar. Musical symbols are written within the bar which is where you read the drum music.

Now we must learn where each drum kit element is found on the stave. We will start by looking at just three parts of a standard set up for a 5 piece drum kit – hi-hat, snare and bass drum.
Hi-Hats

The hi-hats sit just above the top line and is a symbol that consists of a cross with a stem. The reason for the cross is because the hi-hats can not be tuned, they are a fixed pitch or sound and are therefore regarded as un-tuned.

Notice that the hi-hats are written in a variety of ways. This is to clearly communicate whether the cymbals should be struck with the hats ‘closed’ (foot pedal pressed down), ‘open’ (foot pedal released) or with just using the foot pedal alone.
Closed Hi-hat

Open Hi-hat

Notice the O above the symbol to indicate the hat is to be played open followed by the + to indicate the point at which the hats should be closed with the foot.

Hi-Hat Foot Pedal

The hi-hat can also be played by just the foot, when drum music is written for the hi-hat pedal it is placed just below the stave to indicate that the hats must be played by the foot.

Snare Drum

You will have noticed that the snare drum uses a dot as opposed to a cross. Unlike the hi-hat the snare drum has tuning lugs so that the drum skin can be tuned to different pitches hence the reason for the dot.

The snare drum is one of the most important parts of the drum set and is crucial to nearly every drum beat you play. The snare drum can be played in a number of different ways but it is always found on the same place of the stave, here is a basic snare stroke notice it is written in a space.

Bass Drum

The bass drum is played with the bass drum pedal and is found at the bottom of the drum stave.

How to read all three drum sheet music elements together

New Drum Music Elements

Now you might be wondering where the cymbals and toms go to make up the rest of our standard drum kit set up? Let’s find where the other drum set elements are placed and how you read them on the sheet music.

The Crash and Ride Cymbal

Like the hi-hats the crash and ride are un-tuned and therefore receive the honer of a cross as part of the make up of there symbol.

The crash floats above the drum music stave and is often written with a circle surrounding the cross, although this is not always the case and you will sometimes find it written with just the cross (no circle).

Ride Cymbal

The ride cymbal is usually placed and read from the top line. You do however find the ride on occasion placed above the stave and is written with a circle surrounding the cross.

The Tom Toms

The tom toms are place around the snare and can be found both on the line and in a space. Notice that the high tom is place highest on stave and the floor tom is closest to the bass drum. Lower pitches are generally placed at the bottom of the drum sheet music and higher notes go at the top.

How to read the drum music elements together

Once you have mastered how to read each element of the drum sheet music your next task is to sight read the drum parts all together. Drum grooves and even drum fill-ins are made up of playing different parts of the kit either at the same time or one after the other.

Below is an example of a simple groove and fill written out using the elements described above. Don’t worry if some of the symbols look unfamiliar to you just concentrate on working out which is, for example the snare or bass drum or if two parts of the drum kit are written in line with each other meaning they are to be played simultaneously.

Before Moving On

Learning to read drum music is unlike learning any other instrument, for example the piano or violin has undergone 100s of years setting the rules for reading music down in stone. The drum set however being both a contemporary instrument and one that can have new elements added, such as adding an extra bass drum or tom for example, sees its musical rules somewhat more liquefied than it’s classical counterparts. Therefore you may sometimes come across a book or text that places the elements else where. The main thing is, look out for these difference and be aware that things may well at times appear to be on a different part of the stave. The ones taught above are the generally accepted guidelines for reading the music of a standard 5 piece drum kit here in the UK.

As you get better on the drums you will find you won’t think about reading the music as you are playing, it will become second nature to you. If you do find you get stuck from time to time just refer back to this page to review how to read drum sheet music.

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