Sheet music for drums

Do Drummers Read Sheet Music?

Many people ask, “Do drummers read music?”  The answer is yes, many drummers read music.  While some drummers prefer to play “by ear” (without learning to read musical notation), drummers that read music tend to be well-rounded drummers.

What is the importance of reading music for drummers?

Reading musical notation has many benefits including:

  • Taking advantage of educational content – Imagine going to a library, filled with books.  Now imagine not being able to read the language.  There would be all of that information at your disposal, but you would not be able to benefit from any of it.

Musical notation (such as interesting drum beats, transcriptions of songs, etc.) can be found both online and on paper (drum books and magazines).  The ability to read music opens up a world of inspiration to drummers.

  • The ability to communicate with others – If someone did not have the ability to read or write words, their communication would be limited. Again, imagine not being able to read.  If someone sent you an email or mailed you a letter, you would not be able to read it.  You would also lack the ability to communicate with others in written form.

Musicians communicate with each other through written notation.  Oftentimes, one musician will write parts for the entire band.  In other instances, full musical pieces are purchased and handed out to each bandmember.  It is not unusual for musicians to read a song for the first time at a rehearsal or performance!

  • The ability to take notes – The analogy to words is applicable yet again.  Imagine not being able to write a note to yourself.  How would you even make a grocery list?  You would have to remember every item or come home without all of your groceries. Drummers who don’t read or write music must attempt to memorize everything that they learn.

Drummers who read and write music can write out musical ideas that they hear other drummers play.  They also will be able to write out drum parts that they create while improvising, in order to return to the idea at a later time.

  • The ability to accept any performing opportunity – Some bands learn their music by ear, meaning that the musicians learn the music by replicating the parts on a recording.  While playing by ear is a good skill for all musicians to acquire, some performance opportunities require the ability to read musical notation.  A drummer who can read music will not have to turn down any performing opportunities.

What does drum music look like?

People who play other instruments often ask, “What does drum sheet music look like?” 

  • Drum music uses the same five-line musical staff as other instruments.
  • Drums use the same system of rhythmic notation (quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.) as all other instruments.
  • Unlike other instruments, the drums do not use precise musical pitches.  Therefore, each line (or space) of the staff is assigned to a drum or cymbal.
  • Drums are notated using round noteheads, while cymbals are represented by “x” notehead.
Drum and cymbal notes as they would appear in written notation

Older Drum Parts

Older drum set parts would often have a separate line for each drum or cymbal.  For example, Carmine Appice’s book, Realistic Rock (1972), uses three lines for most of the book.  The snare drum, bass drum, and cymbal each have their own designated line.  Extra lines were added later in the book to represent the toms.  This writing style was common in early drumset music.

Three-line staff used for drum notation depicting notes for the snare drum, bass drum, and cymbal.

Drum parts would often be written in bass clef (the clef that lower-pitch instruments such as the tuba read).

Bass clef sign as used in musical notation
Bass Clef Sign

Drum notation later adopted an unpitched percussion clef (sometimes referred to as neutral clef). This is used for percussion instruments of indefinite pitch (instruments that do not use pitches of the musical scale). Unpitched percussion clef is used for instruments such as drumset, cymbals, bongos, woodblocks, and cowbells.

Unpitched percussion clef as used for instruments of indefinite pitch
Unpitched Percussion Clef

Standardized Drumset Notation

In June of 1994, the trade journal of the Percussive Arts Society published Norm Weinberg’s suggestions for a standardized form of drumset notation. This has become the standard for music publishers.  Below is a short summary of the notation system.  An in-depth look at the system is seen in Norm Weinberg’s book, Guide to Standardized Drumset Notation.

Musical staff showing the placement of notes for the snare drum, bass drum, and tom drums.

Musical staff showing the placement of notes for the ride cymbal, hi-hat, and crash cymbals

Some instruments can produce various sound effects. In these cases, there are separate symbols for each sound.  A few are shown below:

Musical staff showing the placement of notes for the open hi-hat, ride cymbal bell, cross-stick and ghost notes on the snare drum

Do Stems for Drum Music Point Up or Down?

Most modern drum music has stems pointing upward for notes played with sticks (snare, toms, and cymbals).  Notes for the feet (bass drum and hi-hat pedal) can point upward or downward depending upon the number of layers in the notation (as explained in the following section). 

Older drum music sometimes followed a common rule for melodic notation: Notes written below the middle line have stems that point up.  Notes written above the middle line have stems that point down. For this reason, books such as Podemski’s Snare Drum Method (1940) originally had stems pointing down.  These books were recently reprinted with stems pointing upward.

Drumset Notation – Two Voices (Layers) vs One

Two Layers

As previously mentioned, notes played by the hands are generally written with stems up.  Notes played by the feet are written with stems down.  This creates two layers (or voices) of notation.  The top and bottom layers must each have the numbers of beats allowed by the time signature.  (See______ for more information on time signatures). 

Here is an example using hands only (stems up).

Musical notation of snare drum and cymbal rhythms

Next is an example using feet only (stems down).

Musical notation of bass drum and hi-hat rhythms

Here is an example using hands (stems up) and feet (stems down).

Musical notation of bass drum, snare drum, and cymbal rhythms

Two Layers (Alternate Notation)

Another method of two-layer notation uses the cymbal (played with the hand) as one voice and drums as another voice.

Musical notation of snare and bass drum rhythms played against a cymbal pattern

Single-Layer Notation

Some authors and publishers prefer to use one layer of notation.  This is less common, but it is theoretically correct.

Musical notation for a drum beat

One-layer notation does work especially well for writing linear drum parts, where only one sound source plays at a time. This is seen in the example below.

Musical notation of a linear drum beat

Alternate notation

A one-line staff is sometimes utilized for a single-pitch instrument, such as a tambourine. 

Musical notation of a tambourine part

A single-line staff can also be used for dual-pitch instruments, such as bongos, by utilizing the space above and below the line.

Musical notation of a bongo drum part

Drum Rolls

Another common question is, “How are drum rolls notated?”  Rolls are written with the equivalent of three slashes on the note. 

  • Notes that do not have flags or beams (whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes) will have three slashes added to indicate a roll.
  • Notes that have one flag or beams (eighth notes) will have two slashes added.
  • Notes that have two flags or beams (sixteenth notes) will have one slash added.

Drum rolls are usually connected to an ending tap through the use of a tie (curved line). 

Musical notation of drum rolls


Drum music can have “R’s” and “L’s” underneath the notes to indicate the sticking. “Stickings” are commonly seen in marching band music, where drummers are required to play in unison with each other.

Drum music notation with stickings indicating the right and left hands

Drum Chart with Improvisation

Drum parts sometimes need to be played one hundred percent verbatim. This is necessary when performing a transcription of a well-known drum part.  Other times, the drummer is given a certain amount of freedom to improvise and add a bit of personality in the drum part.

Below you will see a drum part that uses slash notation.  This tells the drummer to play his or her own version of the specific style.  Each slash represents one count of music.

Musical notation depicting slash notation for drumset

Drummers will often have the chance to improvise through the use of drum fills.  Fills are short rhythms (played on any part of the drumset) that deviate from the main beat.  They are often used to break monotony, signal the end of a phrase, and transition from section to section.

While some fills are written out note-for-note, the example below calls upon the drummer to improvise a drum fill. In this case, the slash notation instructs the drummer to play a drum fill for the duration of the slashes.

Musical notation indicating a drum beat and an improvised drum fill using slash notation

Should Drummers Count While Reading Music?

The number of counts in each measure is determined by the time signature of the piece.  It is therefore suggested that the drummer count when reading music. This will minimize common mistakes such as adding or subtracting notes from the music.  Once a piece of music is learned and/or memorized, some drummers stop counting and simply feel the beat of the music. 

Do drummers ever read melodic notation?

Most musicians play pitched instruments (instruments that use the notes of the scale).  Many people often wonder if drummers can also play melodic notation.  The answer is yes, some drummers play both pitched and non-pitched percussion.  Pitched percussion instruments such as xylophone, marimba, concert bells, and tympani utilize the notes of the scale.  Melodies can be played on these instruments. 

Chords can also be played on some of these instruments.  For instance, marimba players will often hold two mallets in each hand, allowing for four-note chords to be played. This can be seen in the following video.

How do I learn to read drum music?

To learn how to read drum music from step one, go to the Quarter Note section of this website.  You can also inquire about drum lessons in your area.  Be sure that the teacher is able to guide you through reading music, as some drum teachers teach by ear only. 

As you learn to read music, you will be able to take advantage of all the musical ideas on this website as well as information drum books and sheet music.  It can open up a world of opportunities and inspiration! 

Best Musical Wishes!

Jeff W. Johnson

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