When Miles Davis recorded his brilliant KIND OF BLUE album, he walked into the recording studio, put the sheet music in front of his musicians for the first time, and recorded the first run-throughs as takes. Many of these first takes wound up on the album. The performances were spontaneous and inspired. Had these musicians been unable to read music, they wouldn't have been able to play the music.
Many drummers are "ear-trained". They learn to play drums by listening to music and playing to it, many times mimicking it. They also form garage bands and learn by doing. While there's nothing wrong with this type of training for the ear, many drummers never learn to read. Thus, for many, a career as a free-lance musician is denied them (particularly studio recording), unless they "make it" in a band.
Reading music is fundamental to a well-rounded musical approach. We take it for granted in this age of easy recording, but remember that recorded music is a 20th century invention. Before that, most music had to be "recorded" by writing it down on paper. We've gotten a bit lazy because of our technology.
This page hopes to give the beginning reader some of the fundamentals of reading music. It is not meant to be a final statement. A lifetime of study and practice is required to become proficient, particularly at sight-reading - the ability to play music that's put in front of you for the first time (like Miles' musicians did on KIND OF BLUE). The student is encouraged to buy some music books and take a few lessons.
It is my hope that this page will help you broaden your musical abilities.
staff is where everything happens. It consists of five lines and all the
information you need is contained within it (though some notes may be above
or below the staff). All the notes (values explained below) reside either
on a line or in a space.
The Drum Clef
The drum clef denotes that the following music is not written for a pitched instrument; that the position of the note indicates the drum, cymbal, or other percussion instrument played (see the Notation Key). You can tailor your staff for specific instruments - just note them on a notation key.
There are other clefs which you will run into; these are for playing pitched instruments. We will not deal with them here.
is one of the most important parts of the staff for a drummer. This tells
you how the following notes are to be played. The top number indicates
the number of beats in a measure. The bottom note indicates the note that
is to get one beat.
This may sound complicated, but it's not. In our example the top four indicates there are four beats in a measure: counting "1, 2, 3, 4". Four beats. The bottom number indicates which note value is getting the "one". In our example, the quarter note (hence the "4") is getting the value, so in a measure of "4/4" four quarter notes would be counted "1, 2, 3, 4" This is also called Common Time, which is sometime indicated by a large "C" in place of the "4/4" (see Cut Time below).
This will make more sense as you go along.
time uses the large "C" discussed above with a vertical line
through it, and halves both values. This basically has the effect of speeding
the music up twice as fast. Don't worry about this right now.
Bar & Measure
Some folks would say the bar is where you play, but they don't read music!
The bar separates the measures: each measure is contained within two bars.
As mentioned above, our notes will sit on various lines of the staff, indicating which drum we are to play. The type of note will indicate the duration the note will have within our measure. The table below explains the relative values of the notes.
There are two half notes for every whole note; two quarter notes for every half note; two eighth notes for every quarter note; etc.
If we are dealing with a time signature of "4/4", then the above illustration would be one measure in length. A whole note would take up four beats: "1, 2, 3, 4"; a half note would take up two beats: "1, 2, 3, 4,"; a quarter note would take up four beats: 1, 2, 3, 4".
In order to count notes smaller than quarter notes in our "4/4" example, we need to add some sounds. Four eighth notes, we add "and". Thus, counting 8 eight notes in our measure will sound like this: "1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and".
Counting sixteenth notes involves adding some more sounds: "e, and, ah". Thus, counting 16 sixteenth notes in our "4/4" measure will sound like this (take a deep breath): "1, e, and, ah, 2, e, and, ah, 3, e, and, ah, 4, e, and, ah".
This comes in handy when counting mixed-note measures. I'll get into that below. Just remember that each notes halves the value of the preceeding note.
I'll explain all the repeats in the above diagram here. The first Repeat indicates that only one measure is to be played again (this is the measure immediately preceeding the repeat). The number above this indicates how many times the measure is repeated. It's not uncommon for writers to notate a simple rhythm in one measure, then put a repeat with a 7 or other number above the repeat, indicating the drummer is to play the measure seven more times. This is common in show music notation.
second type of repeat is the Two-Measure Repeat. This works in the
same way as the previous repeat, except two measures are being repeated,
not one. As in the regular repeat, the number over the repeat indicates
how many times the 2 measures are to be repeated.
The most common type of repeat if the Multi-Measure Repeat. This is indicated by a thick bar at the end of a multi-measure phrase immediately preceeded by two dots (the one on the right of the two shown). If this is at the end of the staff and no bracketing repeat is shown (the one on the left of the two shown), the piece is repeated from the beginning. If there is a bracketing repeat, the measures repeated are those within the two repeat brackets. Unless indicated, thes repeats are taken only once. It is not uncommon to have a repeat within a longer piece of music - this saves on time writing out repeated notes.
Exercises commonly have a multi-measure repeat at the end. This indicates that the exercise can be repeated ad infinitum to build chops.
tie indicates that the two notes tied together are played as one. Thus,
two tied quarter notes would be played like a half note. This is commonly
done across bar lines and when linking notes of different values.
ghost note indicator (parenthesis) indicates that the note is to be played
very quietly, as a ghost. This is common in funk and jazz notation.
accent mark indicates that that note is to be played louder than any of
the other notes. This technique allows for rhythmic phrasing using dynamics.
Very common in ethnic rhythms.
Dynamic markings indicate the volume level of a given passage. p stands for pianissimo, or "softly". f stands for forte, or "loudly". When a letter is preceeded by an m, this means the note is played "moderately softly," or "moderately loudly", thus giving values between p and f. p and f can also be doubled and tripled (pp, ppp, ff, fff), meaning "very softly," or "very, very softly," depending on the usage.
is used specifically in drumming notation. When placed over or under a
note, it indicates which hand is to strike that note. You will notice these
are used in certain exercises to build independence.
solid bar at the end of a staff indicates that this is the end of the piece
of music. If the music continues to another staff below or on another page,
there will be a regular, thin bar at the end of the staff.
will often run into this over the beginning of a score. This indicates
that the quarter note gets 132 beats per minute. That's really pretty fast,
but this is a way for the composer to tell the performer how fast to perform
the music. The note indicated here is usually the bottom note of the time
signature, so if we were in "6/8" time, we would see an eighth
This diagram shows the rests for the given note value. A rest is just what it says: don't play. Note that the eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second rests are alike, one is added to the previous to indicate its value. As with notes, rests usually rest on the line for the particular voice (drum).
These are the basic notations used on this web site and in most drumming books. There are other symbols used in other types of musical notation; you might want to get some music books and familiarize yourself with them.
The following exercises will help you practice what you've just learned and give you some practical examples. In every case the exercise is followed by a written counting of the measure(s), where the bold numbers are the played notes, and the regular numbers are not played.
One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four-and. | One, two, three, four-and.
Note that the eighth notes in both measures are the same. It is a common practice to draw a line between the tops of the stem of these notes when they are grouped together like this. The next exercise also shows how this applies to sixteenth notes: there are two lines linking the stem! Thirty-second notes will have three lines!
One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four. | One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four.
One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four-and.
One, two-and, three-e-and-ah, four-and. | One, two, three, four.
This one is intentionally tricky and introduces a new component: the dotted note. The dotted note (the third eighth note in the first measure) has a value of one-and-a-half eighth notes. Whenever a dot is added to a note (and it can be added to any note value), the length of the note grows by half it's value. Since half an eighth note is a sixteenth note, we can also think of this as three sixteenth notes, rather than one-and-a-half eighth notes.
Note also that since we always have to come out with an equal amount of notes per measure, the fourth note in the first measure is a sixteenth note: we used up three of the sixteenth notes in this beat with the dotted eighth note, so the fourth sixteenth note stands alone.
A tie between the last eighth note in the first measure are the first quarter note of the second measure. This means the two notes are played as one, as indicated by the text under the staff. (Note also the half note at the end gets two beats.)
One, two, three-and. | One, two, -and-ah, three.
Here's a measure in "3/4" so you can see how it's counted. Starting a measure with a rest can easily throw you off!
You now should have enough under your belt to get you started. it's now time to go to the music shop and pick up a beginning drum method book. Rubank has three good books: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. Ask someone who knows how to help you through the rough spots.
Reading music will open up doors to you that you have never even imagined. It will take some time, and you'll get frustrated along the way. Stick with it! The rewards are great.