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How To Read Drum Sheet Music: Best Guide For Drum Notes 2023

How To Read Drum Sheet Music Best Guide For Drum Notes 2023
  • Max Kuehn

Looking to learn how to read drum sheet music? Check out this guide for everything you need to get started reading and understanding drum notation.
Drum sheet music may look daunting at first, but it is not too difficult to read once you get it. 

The key is to start by learning the basic symbols and rhythms and then practice reading drum notation through sight-reading exercises. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be reading drum sheet music like a pro in no time!

How To Read Drums Sheet Music

The Staff

Because it’s laid out on five horizontal lines (called a “staff”), Staff Drum notation looks a lot like other instrument notation. Each component of the drum set is written on a line – or in the space between the lines – to make it easy to distinguish between them.

The bass drum and floor tom are at the bottom of the staff, while the snare drum and toms are in the middle. Cymbals and other higher tones are at the top.

This diagram, called a ‘drum key,’ depicts where the most frequent drum set components to appear on the staff. When you think about it, it all makes sense!

The hi-hat, for example, is at both the top and bottom (when struck with your stick) (when you step on it).

The “drum clef” comprises two vertical boxes on the left that indicate that this music is intended for drums only. It’s similar to the treble and bass clefs used in musical instrument notation.

The Staff

The Drum Key or Note Placement

Let’s start with each drum or cymbal placement on the staff.

There are other variations of this so-called “drum key,” but you can read any of them if you understand the concept. Please take note of the following:

Drums are represented by “normal” notes, whereas little Xs represent cymbals.

The hi-hat and ride cymbal should be on the same line. Unless otherwise specified, always play the hi-hat.
The easiest method to remember/understand these placements is to remember that the height of a note in the 5-line system corresponds to the location of the associated drum/cymbal.

For example, suppose you play the bass drum, and hi-hat foot with your feet positioned at the bottom of the staff. On the other hand, the cymbals are placed above your drums (and much higher than your pedals). Thus they are at the top of the staff.

So now you know which cymbal or drum to play according to the sheet music. But how can you know when it’s appropriate to use it?

Time Signature

This video shows you how to read drum notes. The second layer of symbols tells you when to play a note. And this is the layer’s most crucial symbol:

It will be at the very beginning of each piece of drum sheet music, and the number at the bottom can be ignored for now.

Instead, concentrate on the number at the top, which indicates how many notes may fit into a bar (a section of your sheet; more on that later…).

So? Isn’t it four notes?

Jep. What about this “bar” thing, though?

Time Signature


It wouldn’t be cool to have four notes for an entire piece of music. It would produce music lasting between 0.1 and 4 seconds (if you made it slow).

However, substituting 400 notes for four would be ineffective since you’ll need to count notes to follow along unless you’re a professional musician. And you’d lose track if you counted to 400 while playing drums.

Sheet music writers devised the concept of bars (or “measures”), which are represented by a vertical line like this:

In this manner, you can squeeze 400 notes into a piece of sheet music, providing you hours and hours of music while just counting to four because the sequence of 400 notes is now broken down into 100 bars, each holding four notes.


How To Read Drum Notes

Now that you’ve mastered the fundamentals of staff, time signature, and tempo, it’s time to look at some drum notation!

Let’s start at the beginning. Drums usually are written as solid round notes, while cymbals and hi-hats are typically represented as a ‘x.’

Here are some of the most popular note values and their meanings in 4/4 time:

How To Read Drum Notes

A note’s value is cut in half by adding an extra’slash’ to the stem.

Different kinds of notes

Notes with dots

Placing a tiny dot to the right of any of these notes will increase the value by 50%. A dotted quarter note, for example, is worth 1.5 beats if a quarter note is worth one beat.

Dotted notes

Connected groups

To make it easier to combine notes that make up a beat visually, horizontal lines called “beams” are sometimes used to connect them.

Connected groups

Notes tied together

When two notes are connected by a curved beam or “tie,” they are played as though they are one-note. The value of the second note is added to the value of the first. For example, a cymbal hit on beat 4’s “and” is written as a linked note over the bar line to indicate the extended sustain.

Tied notes


Triplets are made up of three notes that are evenly spaced over some time instead of the usual two notes. A horizontal beam connects them, and a little ‘3’ is printed above them.

The most common type of “tuplet” is triplets (any equal subdivision of notes spaced evenly over a larger note length).



You might also notice the note stems (the straight vertical lines jutting out). Notes played with the feet have downward-facing stems in traditional drum notation, while everything else has upward-facing stems.

This demonstrates how the hands and feet are separated (and isolating your limbs can help you learn new patterns).

The notes and rests in the hands and feet sum up to the total number of beats in the entire measure (for example, in 4/4 time, the notes and rests in the hands add up to 4, and the notes and rests in the feet add up to 4).

Traditional drum notation

One thing to remember about music notation is that there are a lot of little differences in how people write things. Many of the regulations are fluid and change with time.

All of the current drum notation stems to point upward (including the notes played on the bass drum), making everything appear more connected. The total number of beats in each measure equals the sum of all the notes.

However, this method makes it more difficult to visualize the separation of the hands and feet. Both traditional and modern notation have advantages and disadvantages, and knowing how to read both types is beneficial.


A break indicates when you should not play. Here are a few of the most frequent 4/4 time types.


Adding a dot adds 50 percent to the value of the remainder, just like with notes. Consider the following dotted quarter-note rest (worth 1.5 beats):

Accents, sticking, and phrasing

Let’s look at some additional significant symbols you might see in different styles of drum music now that you’ve gotten a basic understanding of how notes and pauses work.


The letters ‘R’ and ‘L’ above and below the staff indicate which notes should be played with your right and left hands. Rather than complete song charts, this appears most frequently in pedagogical exercises and rudiments.

Accentuation and articulation

The volume of accented notes should be higher than the rest. The wedge with the aperture pointing left is the most popular type of accent sign.

Hand accents are typically written above the staff, whereas foot accents generally are written below. A wedge with the hole pointing downward is less common, indicating that the accent should be a short or “staccato” note.

Markers for phrasing

These are quite useful in indicating how a note should be played. Staccato notes have a dot above them (it’s usually better to play them on a drum rather than a ringing cymbal).

More extended notes, known as “legato,” are usually linked to convey their duration visually. Because cymbals have more sustain, these work best when played on them.

Hi-hats that open/close

You should elevate your toes and open the hi-hat when you see an ‘o’ sign above it. A + sign indicates that the headwear should be closed.

Curved beams are sometimes used to connect open and closed hi-hat notes (although not always…so be prepared for either!)

Hi-hat notes that should be played slightly open are sometimes marked as an ‘x’ with a circle around them.

Grace observes (flams & drags)

Understanding drum music requires the ability to notate and decipher rudiments. Flams and drags are examples of “grace notes” that have no numerical value and are played before another note.

“So when I combine all the notes and rests in each measure, they don’t count as part of my pie?” Nope!

Consider these small embellishments that come before the major note they’re attached. An upward-facing curving beam connects them to the main note.

Notes and rolls buzzed

A slash through the note’s stem is used to write bounced notes. This is known as a “tremolo.” A single slash denotes a bounce or double stroke, while slashes are often used to denote open rolls (where you can hear each stroke individually).

A ‘z’ runs across the stem of closed rolls and buzzes (where you can’t hear each note).

Knotted notes are used to show the length of longer rolls of any sort. They may also have a number inscribed next to the tie to indicate the number of strokes in the registration.

Pauses and breaths

Here are a few other signals you might hear in drum music and the rests we discussed earlier.

A caesura is a pause marker with two leaning vertical slashes (often referred to as “railroad tracks”). “Stop right there!” it practically says.

A fermata, or “hold,” is a downward-facing semi-circle with a dot in the center. This denotes a complete gap in the music during which you should stop counting the seconds.

A pair of spectacles may also be seen, which is an informal way of saying, “lookout, something major is about to happen!”

Other versions and percussion

On different staff lines, cowbells, woodblocks, and triangles are written with triangular or diamond-shaped note-heads.

On the snare drum line, cross-sticks are represented by an ‘x,’ while other rimshots (hitting the rim and snare together or hitting one stick with the other as it rests on the snare head) are represented by a round note with a slash across it.

What Is The Difference Between Drum Tab And Drum Notation?

A simplified variation of drum notation is drum tab notation. Drum tablature uses a set of vertical and horizontal lines with different characters to express rhythm and patterns for the drummer to play, rather than the traditional notes found in a piece of music. Drummers are all unique individuals who learn in different ways.

Drum tab notation can help new drummers learn the fundamentals and serve as a stepping stone to drum notation. On the other hand, Drum tablature is difficult in and of itself and is mostly a legacy of a time when computers couldn’t easily handle the arrangement of drum notation.

What Is The Difference Between Drum Tab And Drum Notation

FAQs About How To Read Drums Sheet Music

FAQs About How To Read Drums Sheet Music

Where Does An Accent Drum Technique Come From?

Different elements of rhythms can be “accented” by making certain notes louder, softer, lower, or higher, or by employing a different part of the drum set.

When the drummer opens the hi-hat and strikes it during a drum beat, he presses back down on the foot pedal to close it, creating an open-and-close sounding rhythm. The accent symbol is usually found just above the accented note.

What Is Drum Technique Marcato?

When using the marcato technique, one note is played louder or more violently than the others around it. This is an effective approach to emphasizing notes in a drum beat. It shows up as a vertical wedge above the intended message on the page.

How Does A Ghost Note Drum Technique Work?

Ghost notes are commonly performed on the snare drum as airy, bouncing sounds that sound like a series of fast notes. This method, which may be performed with both the right and left hands, is commonly utilized in drum beats to assist produce more rhythmic motions within a piece of music.

How Does A Flam Drum Technique Work?

A flam note is produced when a drummer hits a drum with both hands at the same time while keeping the notes slightly apart. Although it appears to be two notes, they are quite close together and feel like one.

How Does A Drag Drum Technique Work?

A simple drag rudiment is performed by striking two notes on the drum with one hand fast, followed by a single stroke with the other. Three notes that sound close together are produced when played closely and fast. To make the drag rudiment sound “finished,” emphasize the final note.

What Is The Technique Of The Rim-Click Drum?

When the drummer places the stick across the drum and taps the rim, this is known as rim-clicking or cross-sticking. You can use the shoulder of the stick to strike the rim, or you can turn the stick around and use the bottom side. Each produces a distinct sound. Soft, quiet music frequently employs this method.


Getting good at reading music notation takes time and practice. There’s no easy way around it; you have to start with simple drum charts and build.
It will also help if you take a few drum lessons from an experienced teacher. But with this guide, you’ll be ahead of the game and hopefully won’t find it so hard to learn to read music.
Before you know it, you’ll be able to read whole songs that you’ve never seen before just by looking at them. Fidlar hope you found this article beneficial and let us know if you have any questions!
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