Learn the Basics of How to Read Drum Music

how to read drum music
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So your child has been badgering you about learning drums? That’s great. Every parent should give their child the opportunity to embrace their creative side and learn a musical instrument. 

If you are going to relent and buy that drum kit, you should make sure that your children learn how to read drum music. It can really help beginners understand what they’re playing and how they should best be playing it. 

Here’s your guide to how to read drum notes for beginners. 

Why Sheet Music is Important

Many musicians, especially drummers, don’t see the value in being able to read sheet music. They think they can learn everything by listening and trusting their ears to know what to play. 

While this is undoubtedly true for some people, reading sheet music opens up a whole new world to musicians in terms of what they can play and how they can interpret what they’re playing. 

Once you learn how to make sense of sheet music, you’re giving yourself another way of understanding and analyzing the music that you’re playing. 

Learn the Basics of How to Read Drum Music 1

How to Read Drum Music 

There are several elements at play for learning how to read drum sheet music. Some of these elements are very similar to learning sheet music for any instrument, and others, like sticking, are specific to drums. 

Let’s take a look at the components of drum music. 

The Staff

The first thing to look at is the staff. No matter what the instrument, all forms of traditional sheet music use a staff for notation purposes. The staff consists of five horizontal lines with specific notes occupying certain spaces on these lines. 

For drums, the line that the note is written on marks out which drum you should play that note on. Notes played on the lower-pitched drums like the kick drum and the floor tom sit towards the bottom of the staff. The snare and rack toms lie within the middle section of the staff and the cymbals sit at the top.  

The only exception to this is the hi-hat, as you can play it with both your hands and your feet. Hi-hat notes played with your hands are positioned near the top of the staff, and those played with the feet are positioned at the bottom. 

You might notice a little symbol on the far left-hand side of the staff. This is the drum clef, and it’s what signifies that the piece of music you’re looking at is specifically for the drums. 

Time Signatures

As drummers, it’s our job to hold down the time for the rest of the band, so we need to know our time signatures well. 

Time signatures are written as two numbers positioned one on top of the other. Every piece of music written is separated into things called measures. These measures can then be further subdivided into beats.

The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats go into each measure, and the bottom number tells you the value of those beats. 

The most common time signature you’ll encounter is 4/4, meaning there are four beats to every measure, and each beat is worth one quarter note. Another common time signature is 6/8.

In 6/8 time, there are six beats per measure, with each beat being worth one eight note.

These are the two most common time signatures for beginners, and you should get these nailed down before moving on to more complicated time signatures. 


Beginners often confuse the time signature and the tempo. The time signature is the piece’s rhythm; the tempo is the speed at which you should play it. 

Tempo is denoted in beats per minute and written with a quarter note symbol, followed by an equals symbol, followed by the beats per minute, or ‘BPM’ as it’s commonly referred to. 

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How to Read Music Notes For Drums

Now for perhaps the main part of learning how to read drum sheet music, the notes. 

Notes inform the player of what they should be playing and what subdivision they should be playing it in. Don’t worry if that sounds alien right now. We’ll cover it below. 

How Different Drums are Notated

Looking at the lines on the staff is not the only way to tell which drum you should be playing. You can also look at the symbol used to write the note. 

While most common sheet music is written with round notes, some drum kit parts look different. Drums like the snare, kick, and toms will be marked with a round note, but your cymbals and hi-hats will be marked with a little cross instead of a round note. 

Basic Notes

There are six main notes that you’ll come across. We’ll list these notes down with their names and their value in 4/4 time. 

  • Whole Note – 4 beats 
  • 1/2 Note – 2 beats
  • 1/4 Note – 1 beat
  • 1/8 Note – Half a beat
  • 1/16 Note – Quarter of a beat
  • 1/32 Note – Eight of a beat

Each of these notes will have a different symbol so that you can tell them apart. A whole note is a hollowed-out circle. A half note looks similar, with the same hollowed-out circle, but it has a stem pointing out from it. 

Quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second notes all have a solid black circle with a stem. The only difference between these four note types is how many slashes you see coming off the stem—the more slashes, the lower the note value. 

As you continue on your journey of learning how to play drums, you’ll come across other more complex note types. For now, these six basic notes are a good starting place. 

Sticking and Accents

If you’ve looked at some basic drum sheet music before, you might notice some lettering above each of the notes. The letters will either say ‘L’, ‘R’, or ‘K’.

These letters denote the sticking, and they play a very important role. They’re there to show you which limb you should be playing each note on—left hand, right hand, or kick drum. 

As you learn basic patterns, grooves, and fills, you’ll quickly realize how important it is to get the sticking correct. 

Learn More About Drum Lessons 

So there you have it, a great starting guide for learning how to read drum music. This guide is not exhaustive, and there are so many more cool things you can learn about drum notation. Use this article as a starting guide, and you won’t go far wrong.

You can’t rely on articles to teach you or your child how to play the drums, though. For that, you’ll need experienced and knowledgeable teachers. Learn more about the amazing drum lessons on offer here at the Sloan School of Music. 

Learning to Read Drum Music FAQs

The purpose of drum notation is to communicate drumming patterns and rhythms in a written format.

Drum notes are represented by different symbols and markings placed on a staff

The symbols on the drum notation represent different drumming techniques, such as snare hits, bass drum hits, and cymbal crashes.

Drum beats are indicated by a series of notes and rests arranged in a specific pattern on the staff.

A line with an “x” through it represents a hi-hat hit in drum notation.

Drum rolls are indicated by curved lines connecting two notes or a single note with a wavy line above it.

A small triangle symbol represents a crash cymbal hit in drum notation.

Drum fills are indicated by a series of notes or rests that deviate from the regular drumbeat pattern.