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Beginner's Guide to Reading Drum Sheet Music

Knowing how to read drum sheet music is a very important skill for expanding your playing and drumming knowledge. In this post, I will give you some tips and tricks to help you understand and memorise drum notation.

One convenient aspect about drum sheet music is that the different notes on the stave represent different drums, so you don’t need to know certain chords, key signatures, chord progressions or the musical alphabet to be able to read it. Put simply, it's a lot easier than learning how to read notes from other instruments!


A helpful way to remember what each drum note means is by it's position on the stave (the black horizontal lines). The position of the notes on the stave corresponds with the pitch of the drum.

From the lowest pitch to the highest pitch:

  • the kick drum is on the bottom line,

  • the low/floor tom (tom3) is on the second line from the bottom,

  • the snare is on the next line up,

  • the middle tom (tom2) is in the middle of the line and

  • the high tom (tom1) is on the top line.

You can see this image below, or in the attached PDF at the bottom of this post.

Cymbals are also read in a similar way as their position corresponds with their pitch but are denoted by a cross instead of a solid note. The ride cymbal sits in the middle of the top line,

the high hats sit above the top line and the crash cymbal sits on the next line up (making it look like a star).

Now that we know where each part of the drum kit sits on the stave, we can have a look at how to count certain notes by reading them.


One of the simplest drum notes we have are quarter/crochet notes, counted as "1, 2, 3, 4".

From quarter/crochet notes, we have eighth/quaver notes, which we can think of as quarter/crochet notes cut in half - they are two smaller parts that make up one whole.

Eighth/quaver notes can be counted as "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and".

Next we have Triplets, which are like Quarter/Crochet notes split into three even notes. They can be counted as "1 and ah 2 and ah 3 and ah 4 and ah". It's important to remember when counting triplets, that all the notes should be evenly spaced apart.

After Triplets, we have Sixteenth/Semiquaver notes, which we can think of as Quarter/Crochet notes split into four. These can be counted as "1 e and ah 2 e and ah 3 e and ah 4 e and ah.

To get used to the counting shown in bars 3-6, have a go playing them consecutively with a metronome at a speed you’re comfortable with (try around 60-80 bpm if you are a beginner).

Using your snare along with the metronome, you would play: [1, 2, 3, 4,] [1 +, 2 +, 3 +, 4 +] [1 + a, 2 + a, 3 + a, 4 + a] [1 e + a, 2 e + a, 3 e + a, 4 e + a].

When you’re doing this exercise, it’s also a good idea to alternate which hand you use for each stroke, starting with your dominant hand then less dominant (e.g. Right, Left), as seen in the following screenshot and PDF below.

Now that we know what each note represents and how to count them, we can look at how to play them in grooves (the foundational rhythmic patterns in songs).


The screenshot/PDF below provides four groove examples using the counting we talked about earlier. In the first example (bar 7) we can see that we have a high-hat and kick drum vertically in line with each other (on beat 1) followed by a high-hat and snare in-line with each other (on beat 2).

When notes are in line with each other it means we play them at the same time, so for bar 7 we would play the kick and high-hat together, then the snare and high-hat together and so on.

As with the counting examples above we can see that bar 7 contains a quarter/crochet note groove, bar 8 is an eighth/quaver note groove, bar 9 is a triplet groove and bar 10 contains a sixteenth/semiquaver note groove with the high hat on every beat.

Hope that helps! Make sure you download the full PDF below the image.

Backbone Drum School - Beginner's Sheet Music Guide
Download PDF • 46KB


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