Reading Drum Sheet Music | 5 Tricks to Remember

2620170206_8bdb56da66_oLearning how to read drum sheet music can be challenging at first – here are 5 tricks to remember as you’re working on your skills, courtesy of Edmond, OK drum teacher Tracy D...


It can be a bit daunting when you are new to reading drum sheet music, to absorb and coordinate all the information contained in drum set notation. With that in mind, I have compiled a few tricks that I’ve learned over time, which should help you on your way.

First, let me say that while it is possible to be a good player without knowing how to read music, the ability to read will open up worlds to the musician! You can learn from any book, compose your own pieces or exercises, and transcribe the works of your favorite artists. Reading is power!

Let’s take a look at the rhythm staff:

(Staff courtesy of

This is the standard notation. Occasionally, you may see a staff with the snare on the center line, but that is fairly rare. Most likely, you will begin by reading music that contains only the snare, kick (bass), and hi-hats. Now, let’s begin the process of decoding it all. In the grooves below, the time signature is 4/4 (four beats, quarter note gets the beat). They are counted as 1 2 3 4. The hi-hats are written as 8th notes (eight to a measure) and that is a subdivision. They are counted as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. (Each line below “says” the same thing, but it is a good comparison for common variations in notation). Each groove is two measures, separated by a “bar line.” Line A contains rests, quarter, and 8th, respectively, and they indicate silence for that duration.

Look for the parts on the staff that line up directly. Hi-hats and bass? Snare and hats? These will help ground your interpretation of the music. The limbs required for those voices will hit together. In the first measure of each groove, the bass plays beats 1 and 3, and the snare plays beats 2 and 4. They line up with the hats.

(Grooves courtesy of

Observe the voices that change in the groove. Which voices do not change? Here, the hi-hats never change, so you do not have to busy your eyes (and brain) with continuous reading of those figures. Notice that the snare is always on 2 and 4 as well. You will quickly be able to move those to auto-pilot and concentrate on reading the bass part, because it is the only voice that changes. Nice shortcut, huh?

If you run into a tricky pattern within a measure, isolate that part and work it out before putting it back into the whole. For example, the first few beats of measure 2 may be challenging at first. Those are your target beats.

Be sure to count as you play! There is nothing better for correct note placement. In these grooves, the 8th note is the smallest subdivision that the drums, which are the main voices, represent. 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & – if you can say it, you can play it.

If getting all your limbs to cooperate is a challenge, start off with the hi-hats, and add the snare or the bass (whichever is easier) and get a solid feel with those. Then add the other parts until you are comfortable with the feel.

In sum, the ability to read drum sheet music will always serve you well. Remember to look for your anchors, notice which parts do or do not change, isolate trouble spots, count as you play, and add or subtract voices as necessary until you can play them all. These tips should streamline the learning process and make it more enjoyable. Practice, practice, practice!


Tracy D. teaches percussion and drum lesson in Edmond, OK, as well as online. She has been playing the drums various bands for more than 13 years, and has also played intermittently with the OKC Community Orchestra for the past five years. Learn more about Tracy here! 



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2 replies
  1. Tali Howell
    Tali Howell says:

    Nice article for a novice like me!
    I found it interesting especially b/c of the short cuts. I wish you would do an article on percussion with items that aren’t technically instruments ( like you did in the studio with my song “Accidentally”-was that a brake drum you used?)

  2. Christopher
    Christopher says:

    Hello,been playing the drums since I was 13,years old I’m now 42,.I was involved in a near death motorcycle accident but to the grace of god he spared my life but with some minor limitations which is my left hand that has minor dexterity due to my left arm being severed but they reatached it with a skin graff amen anyway with no sympathy I did my own rehabilitation with hand grips then came to the point to were I said it is time to sit on the throne again and let the chops begin. After about a year I retrain ed myself to play were I left off and I play better now to tell you truth as I know it came from thanking god every time I sat /sit down to practice I’m ready again to play full throttle. I am a 42,year old looking to give another shot at touring the US oh Yeah I forgot to mention I came close to getting sign back in the early 90’s with my band liquid Chris cross but we got shelved. I wanting to put together another project to see were it takes me.All I want is to tour the US yes the US I’m game and most definitely have the stamina and driven force to go along with my playing.


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