Reading drummer sheet music can be very stressful if you don’t understand what you see on the page. Like reading in any language, drum and music notation has a system. Understanding the system will unlock many new drumming opportunities for you.
In this article, I’m going to share what drummer sheet music is and some basics on how to read it. We’ll cover snare drum and drum set notation as well as drum charts.
What is a drum music sheet?
Drum music is usually written on a sheet of paper called staff paper. This staff paper has multiple staves, also called staffs (rows), and within each stave are multiple horizontal lines. Each stave is also divided into measures, or brief passages of music.
Piano, violin, saxophone and other melodic instruments’ parts are written on the same kind of paper with specific pitches and rhythm written in. Drum notation is actually easier because there are no pitches, only rhythm.
What is drum notation?
Drumming notation uses universally accepted symbols for each part of a drum set. This notation makes it easy to figure out which part of the drum kit you should play at any point in a measure.
Drum set symbols
Here are the symbols we often use in drum notation:
Drum notation generally starts with the higher-pitched voices of the drum set at the top of the staff. It then works it’s way down to the lower-pitched voices of the drum set at the bottom of the staff.
This kind of symbol placement makes it easy to connect the symbol to the part of the drum set we need to play.
Other types of notation
The basic concept is actually quite simple. Think of a measure of music as a bus. You can only fit so many people on a bus and a measure fits notes instead of people.
You can play notes or rest and not play notes. The notes are the people and the rests are like empty seats.
Rhythmic notation is basically either playing or not playing. Notes can be on the beat or syncopated (off the beat). While there are different ways to write these rhythms, the basic concept is always the same.
How to read drum music
Let’s take a look at some example drummer sheet music from a simple snare drum piece I wrote. Here’s the link to download it for free. It’s part of my Drum Lesson PDF’s and Drumless Tracks Bundle.
You can see that there are different notes written here. Please also notice that above each stave, there are counts too. The “+” is an “and.” So we count out loud, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.” These counts are very helpful in knowing exactly where notes are supposed to be played.
To keep things simple for this article, let’s just focus on the first 2 measures. Measure one has 4 equally spaced notes. These are called Quarter Notes and they land on counts “1,2,3,4”.
Notice there are no notes under the “+” counts. So, we play nothing when we count those out loud.
The next measure has a combination of notes. The notes connected together at the top are called Eighth Notes. They land on counts “2 +” and “4 +”. So, to know exactly where notes are to be played, count 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + continuously.
You’ll then see when notes line up with specific counts. When the count lines up with a note, you play.
How to read drum set music
So you may be thinking okay, that’s easy with reading rhythmic notation for one drum. How do you ready drum notation for a full drum kit?
It’s actually the same process but now we have to think about coordinating our limbs to create beats. Next, I’m going to share an easy way to improve your coordination quickly while you read and learn new drumming patterns.
Check out this drum beat. This is also part of my Drum Lesson PDF’s and Drumless Tracks Bundle. Here’s the link to download it.
In this example, we’ll learn to play a basic Jazz Swing beat. In Jazz we count things a little differently than in Rock or Pop drumming. We count in triplets.
Let’s go back to thinking of our measure of music as a bus. If we have 2 seats on a bus and squeeze 3 people into that space, those are like triplets. Triplets are basically 3 notes in the place of 2 notes.
To count triplets, see above. Count “1 + a 2 + a 3 + a 4 + a.” Now let’s tackle the coordination of this useful drum beat.
Start off with no tempo
Don’t start trying to play at a specific tempo. Instead, count each count out of time and play what is under each count. The top note of the staff is the Ride cymbal, the next note down is the snare drum cross stick. Below that we see the bass drum part and at the bottom, we have the hi-hat foot part.
Say “1” and play the ride cymbal and bass drum together. Next, count out loud “+ a.” Then say “2” and play your ride cymbal, cross stick, bass drum and hi-hat all together.
Count “+ a” out loud and play your ride cymbal on the “a.” Since the first half of the measure is the same as the second half, simply repeat the process.
I have another article that goes into greater detail about this way of learning drums. Check out my blog post Learn Drums Fast.
What are drum charts?
The last kind of drum score or drummer sheet music I want to talk about is the drum chart. Drum charts are like road maps to a song. In Jazz drumming and other styles, we often have to read a drum charts. They usually include specific coordinated rhythmic hits or “kicks” that we play with the rest of the band.
See below for an example of a drum chart. This first page of the drum chart goes with my Almost Jazz Standards Volume 2 drumless tracks collection.
As you can see, there are staves and measures just like staff paper. Inside some of the measures are Quarter Notes, Eighth Notes and other types of notes. These are the kicks. You can also see letters and other symbols that guide us through the song.
Drum charts are extremely helpful in keeping us in the right place at the right time while we play through songs. I use drum charts in rehearsals, at live shows and in the recording studio. I actually read drum charts almost every time I play drums!
Easy drumming songs for reading practice
I’ve got some easy Jazz drumming songs to help you improve your drummer sheet music reading. The following two collections of drumless tracks and drum charts will give you lots of practice in reading drum notation.
I recommend checking out my Almost Jazz Standards and Trading fours and eights drumless tracks collections. The music and drum charts together will give you many opportunities to connect what you read to what you hear.
Reading drummer sheet music is like getting to the top of a mountain and enjoying the full view. Without reading music, your view will always be obstructed and you won’t be able to fully engage in the music.
Reading music is like reading any language. Once you get, you’ll never forget it. Start with snare drum notation, move to drum set notation and finally tackle those drum charts.
If you’re looking to improve your music reading or Jazz drumming skills, I suggest you check out jazzdrumschool.com for my Jazz drumming courses.
You can also book a private Zoom lesson with me and I’ll be more than happy to help you sort out the reading side of drumming.
As always, wishing you the best in your drumming journey. Keep on swinging my friend!
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