How To Read Drum Music

Drum Notation 101


Every drummer will come across some sort of notation at one point in their drumming careers. While many drummers can read notation, most drummers aren’t able to. It’s important to have a basic understanding of how drum sheet music works as it helps a lot when learning things. 

Having patterns and songs written down for you means you won’t have to rely on your memory to play everything. If you can’t read drum notation, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to take a brief dive into everything that it involves.

What Is A Drum Notation?

Drum notation involves a series of symbols that hold time values and placements. Drums are unique compared to other instruments as they have their own notation. Where other instruments will read the same clefs to produce the same notes, drums make use of the percussion clef. 

There are two main aspects of drum notation. The first is orchestration and the second is time values. Orchestration is where the drums are placed on the staff. Each drum and cymbal has a place and you need to play it when you see it at that place when reading. 

Time value refers to how short or long certain notes are. As drums are often very busy within bars of music, we refer to different subdivisions as points of reference. The main subdivisions are quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. 

Table of Contents

How To Read A Drum Notation

Repeat Bars

1. Repeat Bar

Drums are a repetitive instrument. Because of this, many bars in a song will have the same drum beat played over and over. When drums are notated out, repeat signs in bars are used as it stops us from having to right the same bar over and over every time it’s played. 

Repeat bars are way more common in drums than they are in any other instrument.

Difference from a Drum Notation and a Drum Tablature

Drum tabs are much easier to read than drum notation, especially to someone who doesn’t know how to read drum notation. Drum tabs will take a beat and map it out very clearly so that the person reading it will know exactly what to play on each count. 

A drum tab will typically label each line so that you know which line is the snare and bass etc. People use drum tabs because they are quick and easy to understand. However, once you know how to read drum notation, it becomes more convenient to use as it offers more diversity and lets you expand on ideas. 

Understanding how to hit the drums

In its most basic form, drum notation will tell you which drum to hit and how long to wait before you hit it. However, it can get way more in-depth than that and offer more direction for how to play. The directions come in the form of dynamic and technique markings. 

Drum Techniques and Signs:

Accent Drum

An accent on a drum will typically be marked by a greater than symbol. When you see this on top of a note, it means you need to play the note louder than the other ones in the bar. You’ll typically see these accent signs when playing backbeats or strong off-beat rhythms on the hi-hat. 

2. Accent -1

Ghost Note

The opposite of an accent in drumming would be a ghost note. This refers to when you strike the drum incredibly softly. Ghost notes are indicated by a set of brackets around the note. 

Ghost notes are most commonly played on the snare drum. However, they can be notated on other drums as well. 

3. Ghost Note


A flam is when you hit both hands together, but one hand will strike the drum slightly before the other. Flams are notated by having a smaller note in front of the main note. It’s important to know that the smaller note is attached to the main note and doesn’t hold any extra value in terms of counting in the bar.

4. Flam

Cross Stick

A cross stick is when you lay your stick across the snare drum and hit the rim with the shaft of the stick. Cross sticks are sometimes referred to as rim clicks. They’re represented in notation by having an ‘x’ on the snare line.

5. Cross Stick

Understanding how to hit Cymbals

Before we look at where the cymbals are placed and how to hit them, it’s important to know that many people don’t agree on cymbal notation, meaning it’s often different depending on where you’re reading it from!


A crash will typically be notated by having a circle around the ‘x’. It will sometimes be on top of the line while other times it will be written even higher on what is called a ledger line. When hitting a crash, you need to hit it diagonally instead of head-on as it will preserve the life of the cymbal. Cymbals that are hit straight-on will crack faster. 

6. Crash

Hi Hat 

The hi-hat will always be marked as an ‘x’ above the top line on the staff. There are different ways to strike the hi-hat to produce different tones. Hitting the top of the hi-hat will give a subtle chick sound while hitting the shoulder will produce a more aggressive sound.

7. Hi-hat

Choke Crash

When notation tells you to choke the crash cymbal, it will usually just have the word ‘choke’ written underneath the staff. Choking the crash refers to when you hit it and then grab it with your hands straight afterward.  

8. Choke


A china cymbal may be indicated by a similar cymbal to the crash, yet it will be placed on a higher ledger line. China cymbals are a lot more aggressive sounding than crash cymbals, meaning drummers don’t play them as often. You should hit them the same way you hit a crash in order to preserve the life of the cymbal. 


Splash cymbals typically aren’t notated in drum notation. It’s generally up to the drummer to decide whether he hits a splash cymbal or a crash cymbal. As the splash cymbal is a lot smaller than other cymbals, there’s no other way to hit them other than head-on. 

Open Hi Hat

An open hi hat is represented by placing a small circle just above the hi-hat symbol in the notation. To play an open hi hat, you need to lift your foot off the pedal. 

9. Open Hi-hat

Loose Hi Hat

An open hi hat is represented by placing a small circle just above the hi-hat symbol in the notation. To play an open hi hat, you need to lift your foot off the pedal. 

Other Techniques:


Drum rolls are played on the snare drum. They’re typically referred to as buzz rolls. They’re notated with a small ‘z’ on the stem of the snare drum note. To play them, you need to buzz the sticks into the snare and alternate your hands. 

Accented Rolls

An accented roll will be the same as a normal roll. However, it will have some sort of accent marking. The notation may tell you to start soft and get louder or vice versa. 

7 Tips to Start Reading Drum Music

1.Slow Down 

When reading music, it’s vital to take it slowly. The slower you play, the easier it is to read notation. Once you get accustomed to the parts you’re reading, then you can play it a little faster. 

2. Count Out Loud 

Counting out loud is one of the best ways to make sure you’re playing the notes properly and waiting long enough before playing the next note. Sometimes it helps to even write the counting above the notes on the sheet music. 

3. Practice Regularly 

If reading music becomes part of your regular practice routine, your reading abilities will improve drastically over time. The more you read, the better you’ll get at it. 

4. Play to Songs 

Find full songs that have been transcribed and play along to them while following the sheet music. It’s a fun way of reading drum notation. 

5. Write Things Out

Find some music notation software and try to write drum parts out yourself. It’s a great way of figuring out how things are written.

6. Teach Someone Else to Read 

Teaching is the best way to learn something. By teaching someone else to read sheet music, you’ll get a more firm grasp on it yourself. 

7. Have Fun!

Realize that reading drum sheet music isn’t a chore. It’s a useful tool to have that will get you very far in your musical journey. Have fun while reading and always seek to find some new materials to learn from. 


Many drummers debate with themselves whether they need to learn how to read drum music. Our advice is to take the step and learn. You’ll be a better drummer for it. It will unlock pathways that you wouldn’t have had if you weren’t able to read music. 

Whether it be the ability to learn new songs quickly or the potential for earning income from teaching others to read, sheet music reading should be a vital skill in any drummer’s arsenal. 

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