How to Read Drum Music – The Basics

Is learning how to read drum music really necessary? Why not just use the best drum machines?

Ever asked yourself those questions? If yes, you’re not alone. Many newbie drum students feel intimidated of learning to read drum music. The truth is it’s not really as difficult as you (or they) might think.

We’re here to help. In this article, you’ll learn the basics of reading drum music. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

Why Should Musicians Learn to Read Music?

There are a lot of reasons why a musician should be able to understand the symbols on a music sheet. For instance, an aspiring classical musician has no choice on this issue. Musicians in this music genre are known for their strict adherence to principles of music and are expected to perform each note precisely as the composer had planned.

Do you want to be a songwriter? That’s an extra motivation for you to learn to read music.

Knowing the language of music lets you enjoy the ability to play in different genre and almost all songs—from children’s songs to the most difficult pieces of classical music. You’ll also feel more confident in interpreting songs in different ways because you already have a better understanding of what’s involved in putting them together and their structure.

Depending on your music interest and skill level, you can use your knowledge of reading music to play many musical instruments. That’s because most musical symbols you learn are universal.

No one’s expecting a beginner—perhaps like you—to learn reading music in just a few days, unless he or she’s a musical genius. It takes many years and constant practice to build this skill. However, once you become good at it, you can absorb new music and work much faster, with little to zero errors.

You can learn by ear, but as a song becomes more complex, it’s no longer doable. Try playing the ‘Dance of Eternity’ on drums without a music sheet and see how it works for you. It’s one of the hardest songs to play on drums, especially if you’re just a beginning drummer or even as an intermediate drummer.

We guess we can agree that musicians in general will benefit from learning about how to read drum sheet music. Next, you might ask, “What’s the right age to start music lessons?

Short answer: There’s no fixed rule on the “right age” to start taking music lessons.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in your late twenties or forties. Then again, music teachers would advice parents to take their children to structured music lessons when they’re already between three and eight years old.

Whether you start early or late in your life, music lessons have its benefits, not just helping you read music sheets and play different instruments. In general, it helps you communicate better, enhance your efficiency as a musician, have a better social life, and open up new opportunities for yourself.

Do Newbie Drummers Need to Learn to Read Music?

Most drummers are self-taught and learned to play simple beats by listening and playing the rhythmic pattern of certain songs. In fact, there are many famous drummers, such as Tony Williams, Dennis Chambers, and Dave Grohl, who don’t read music and play only by ear. Despite their “just figure it out” attitude, they still memorize songs and perform excellently, without reading sheet music.

That brings up a lot of questions:

What are the important benefits of taking drum lessons and learning how to read music?

Would it be difficult for a beginner to grasp the concepts behind reading drum set notation?

Is it better to play drums by ear, teaching yourself, or both?

There are positives and negatives to playing by ear and following a sheet music, regardless of what level your are. Let’s go through some of the pros of each style.

Here are the pros of playing drums by ear:

  • Some drummers feel it’s too much of a burden to read drum notation, and it distract them from what’s most important: the sound.
  • When you’re having a jam session, you’re free to to be creative with your drumming techniques and start a few ad-libs.
  • Learning to play the drums by ear is a great skill to have. However, it doesn’t mean others can’t learn the same skill, or you don’t need to keep training your ear. You should, or risk stunting your growth as a musician.
  • It’s easier for you to listen to a song (or other drummers), and then instantly play it on drums and copy the grooves and fills or give it a twist to make it your own.

The pros of reading sheet music sheet and drum notation include:

  • Activities, like playing with a band or doing a recording session, would proceed smoothly and efficiently.
  • While knowing how to read drum music won’t make you an exceptional drummer, it’ll help you improve your skills and understanding of music as a whole.
  • Learning (or improving your ability) to read music will help you create a sustainable career in music.
  • It’s easy for you to execute instructions in music terms, such as “play quarter notes on the bass, do your fill, and then end with quarter notes,” especially during crunch time.

Both playing by ear and by reading a sheet music have their benefits—probably more so if you can combine both styles. If you don’t feel the need to, that’s okay. However, if you dream of being a professional drummer or music teacher, you need to learn how to read drum sheet music.

How Do You Start Learning to Read Drum Music?

The first thing you need to know is music reading in drumming is called as drum notation. There’s no single standard of notation when it comes to playing the drums, which isn’t the case with guitars and pianos. Yes, there’s a drum notation that’s internationally recognized, but there are others who would use a different notation system.

So, what’s the purpose of a drum notation? What does it tells us?

A musical composition is written on a staff (or stave in British English), which you read from left to right. It consists of five horizontal lines and four spaces. When it comes to a drum notation, every symbol, line, and space on a standard staff doesn’t refer to the pitches. It tells you which drum you need to hit and at what time.

Here are examples:


  • Notated by an “x” note head
  • Placed above the fifth line of the staff


  • Also notated by an “x” note head
  • Placed on the top line (for the ride cymbal) or on the lower lines (for the second ride cymbal, which is commonly positioned on the left side of the set, beside or above the hi-hat)


  • Notated by a dotted note
  • Placement of each tom: high tom is on the fourth space, the mid-tom is on the third space, and the low-tom is on the second space

Snare Drum

  • Notated by a simple note or by a cross-sticking note (which has an “x” inside a circle)
  • Placed on the middle line

Bass Drum

  • Notated by a simple note
  • Placed in the bottom space of the music staff

Time Signature

If you look at the left side of the staff, you’ll notice two numbers placed on top of each other. It’s called the time signature. The top number indicates the number of beats in a bar, while the bottom number indicates a specific type of note.

Let’s say you’re in a 4/4 time signature (also called as “four four” time). It means there’s four quarter notes for each measure.

It’s possible for you to study the principles of music by reading a book or watching videos on YouTube. However, that might not be a good option for children. It’s better to get a good teacher, if you’re serious about knowing how to read drum music.

How to Read Drum Tabs

You can think of drum tabs, also called as drum tablatures, as a simpler version of a sheet music. It’s usually used for percussion instruments. However, instead of musical notes, drum tabs consist of markings and letters. Newbie drummers and modern musicians usually prefer using drum tabs because they’re easier to find and write.

Drum tabs are abbreviated:

  • CC: Crash cymbal
  • HH: Hi-hat
  • Rd: Ride cymbal
  • SN: Snare
  • T1: Hi-tom
  • T2: Low-tom
  • FT: Floor tom
  • B: Bass drum
  • HF: Hi-hat foot
  • O: Bass drum hits
  • X: Snare and hi-hat hits

How do you write a drum tab? To give you an idea, here’s an example:




The first line has the “HH” abbreviation, which refers to the hi-hat. The second line has the “SN” abbreviation, which stands for the snare drum. Finally, the last line has the “BD” abbreviation, which stands for the bass drum.

The “-” symbols tells you to pause. To be more specific, you don’t play the hi-hat, snare drum, or bass drum. Meanwhile, the “x” symbol simply means you play or hit the instrument. The “o” or “O” symbol means open (or playing uncrossed).

How to Read Drum Music – Final Thoughts

Can you still play the drums even if you don’t know how to read a sheet music? Yes.

As we’ve mentioned in this article, there are many famous drummers who are self-taught and play by ear. Contrary to what most people think, this skill takes years of constant practice and listening to a lot of songs and other drummers to develop.

Are there real benefits of taking music lessons and becoming good at reading drum music? Definitely.

If you’re planning to become a professional musician or a music teacher, write great songs, or play in an orchestra or a school marching band, learning to read music will help you achieve them and a lot more. Plus, you can use the knowledge you already have to play all types of musical instruments.

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