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Quick Tips: A Guide To Reading Drum Notation

An easy walkthrough of drum notation for music students, or parents who want to support their child's musical education.

The drum kit is a great instrument to learn. Not only is it fun and a great way to release some energy, it allows the musician to play in a very wide range of genres and is quite a ‘logical’ instrument. What do I mean by that? Well, when it comes to reading music for the drums, everything lines up very nicely to provide quite a logical system of notation.

At Grooveline, we are often contacted by parents who really want to help their child practise their instrument, but are overwhelmed by understanding and reading the music that their child is learning. Well, fear no more - we are here to help explain some concepts, and to bust some of the jargon. The good news is that reading drum music is not as difficult as you might think! First let’s breakdown some of those buzzwords…

What is a stave?

A stave refers to the 5 horizontal lines that music is written upon

What is a clef?

A clef refers to the little symbol that is written at the start of a stave. It tells the musician how to read the music that follows. Even notes that are written in exactly the same positions of the stave can have a different meaning, depending on the clef in which they are written.

There are a few different types of clefs. The most common ones that you may have seen are the treble clef and bass clef as seen below:

The drum kit (and some other percussion instruments) read music not with standardised notation, nor with TAB, but with their very own system using the percussion clef, which is represented by two vertical lines and looks like this:

What is a tempo?

Tempo simply means the speed of a piece of music. It is measured in beats per minute (BPM) and is usually written above the stave at the start of a song.

What is a time signature?

A time signature tells us how many beats, and what type of beat beats are in a bar. The top number tells us how many beats are in a bar, and the bottom number tells us what type of beats they are. If the bottom number is a 4, it means crotchet beats, if it is an 8, it means quaver beats.

Most commonly, there are 4 crotchet beats in a bar which is signified by the following symbol.

Occasionally we may also be faced with some other time signatures, such as having 2, 3 or 6 beats in a bar. For example, as we progress on the drums we may be faced with a time signature such as 6/4 (six crotchets in a bar), 6/8 (six quavers in a bar) or 3/4 (three crotchets in a bar).

For now, let’s stick to the most common - 4 crotchet beats per bar (4/4).

So, how do we read drum music?

The first thing we need to know is the names of the different parts of the drum kit:

When looking at the stave, each line, and each space between two lines, is designated to a different part of the drum kit, as seen below.

So, if we were to be presented with the following piece of music, we would know to play the bass drum, followed by the hi hat, then the snare drum and finally another hi hat:

Okay, we know what to play, but when do we play it?

This is where the logical part comes in. Luckily, drum music lines up really nicely so once you’ve got the hang of a couple of basic concepts, you can begin to “see” rhythms and how the pattens played on each part of the drum kit line up to create a full beat (aka groove).

The first thing we need to understand is time values. Each different shape of notes tells up how long a beat lasts for:

Therefore, in the example from earlier, we now know that each hit of a drum should have lasted for 1 beat.

Putting It All Together:

Quite often in a drum beat, the hi hat plays a consistent quaver pattern, keeping all the musicians in time. This makes reading rhythms quite logical, we know to hit the hi hat twice per beat (therefore 8 times in a bar of 4 beats), and all we have to do is look closely as to when the other parts of the drum kit are played. Let’s look at the example below:

The hi hat is playing constant quaver notes, with the bass drum also being played at the same time as the first and fifth hi hat, and the snare drum is being played at the same time as the third and seventh hi hat. When you put all of this together, you are playing the most famous example of a drum groove which sounds like this.

Don’t worry if this seems like a lot of information to take in all at once. Perhaps revisit this blog in a few days time to refresh your memory. It all makes a lot more sense when you have a drum kit in front of you to put this into practice too.

Your child is being taught all of this each week in their lessons and is building on their knowledge from week to week. You don’t need to be Phil Collins to help support your child’s drum practice - an understanding of some basic concepts can go a long way. Of course, you can always contact us too with any questions you may have, or head over to our social media for advice, mini lessons and quick tips.

To help your child get the most out of their practise, why not check out our Grooveline drum products over at our online store.

Thanks for reading and have a great day!


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