Drum Notation & Sheet Music: How to Read It

As a starting drummer, it is helpful to read drum sheet music because it will allow you to learn and remember new songs without having to guess by ear or remember every stroke you make.

Drum notation is how we write down and convey patterns, rhythms, and songs from one drummer to another. It is, in many ways, the language of drummers. As a starting drummer, it is helpful to read drum sheet music because it will allow you to learn and remember new songs without having to guess by ear or remember every stroke you make.

Drum notation will also help you during the start of your drumming career, as you can simply read to complex rhythms and techniques, which you can revisit and practice just by taking our your sheet music. Drum sheet music can massively improve your timing, control, and understanding of drums.

Finally, the most advanced drummers can still use drum notation to study new songs quickly and write their own rhythms to remember them at any time.

This guide will cover the specifics of drum notation, accents, and general music notation.

Table of Contents

  1. Why Read Sheet Music?
  2. The Basics of Drum Notation
  3. Drum Accents
  4. Music Notation
  5. Tips on How to Read Drum Music

Why Read Sheet Music?

Reading drum sheet music is the perfect way to practice drums uniformly, master different drum skills, learn drum techniques and teach yourself your favorite songs. It's not just for beginner drummers.

The Fear of Reading Sheet Music

The idea of reading drum notationmay strike fear in the beginner drummer, but drum notation is just a little different from standard sheet music, as well as easier to read. Drum notation can be great if you get into session drumming and you need to be able to learn a song quickly.

If limb coordination is still getting you down, you can check out this free course on Limb Independence from Gabe.

The Basics of Drum Notation

Drum notation is a little like music notation. It's a musical language written on music manuscripts, the same as sheet music. But, instead of the symbols representing a musical note,each symbol on the drum notation represents a different part of the drum kit.

Reading drum sheet music will help you bring your uncoordinated limbs back into focus and make you a more solid drummer with excellent timing and regular rhythm.

How to Read Drum Notation

A music staff is made up of five horizontal black lines, containing four white spaces. This empty staff shows one measure of four beats, where each beat is a rest.

A music staff is made up of five horizontal black lines, containing four white spaces. This empty staff shows one measure of four beats, where each beat is a rest.

Reading drum sheet music is like reading a book: from left to right and line by line, top to bottom. The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces across. Each line and space is called a staff line and has a number, ranging from staff line 0 (the highest black line) and staff line 1 (the highest white space) to staff line 8 (the lowest black line). Notes can be positioned on the lines and spaces as well as above and below the staff, on ‘invisible’ staff lines such as staff line -2 or staff line 9.

In drum notation, each note represents a different part of the drum kit and each one has a specified place on the staff, making it easier when reading. Drum notes can be at the same horizontal point on the staff, but they'll be either above or below the other notes.

Breaking it down further,drums are represented by dots, whereascymbals are represented by an X. Both have stems attached like sheet music notes. This makes reading the notation easier, enabling you to pick the difference between drums and cymbals, even if you're sight-reading.

Standard Drum Notation

This overview shows what part of the drum a symbol represents and whereabouts it sits on the staff. It is helpful to imagine the symbols on the staff line corresponding to the relative height of the drums and cymbals on your drum kit.

Working out what each note means will become second nature as you practice working with drum notation.

Let’s look at the drum notation for a standard four- or five-piece kit and some less commonly used notations for extra pieces. The guide is written in order of where the symbols are located on the staff, starting from the bottom.

Bass Drum or Kick Drum

The regular notation for the bass drum (bass drum 1), and the notation for the second bass drum if you use one.

The bass drum is usually thelowest drum of a typical drum kit, with the notation sitting in the lowest or first space from the bottom of the staff (staff line 7).

If you have a second bass drum, the notation is on the lowest line of the staff (staff line 8).

Floor Tom

The regular notation for the floor tom, and alternative notations for other lower-registered toms.

Floor toms or low toms tend to be the next lowest drum in the kit, so the floor tom notation is situated on the second space from the bottom of the staff (staff line 5).

Other lower-registered toms sit on the lines above (staff line 4) and below (staff line 6) this tom with the same style of notation.

Snare Drum

The notation for the snare drum.

Up next we have the snare drum. Thebeating heart of the drum kit sits on the second space on the staff (staff line 3).

Like the Bass drum and floor tom, the snare drum is represented as a dot with a stem.

Tom 1 and Tom 2

The notation for the high tom (tom 1) and mid tom (tom 2).

The high tom is located in the top space of the staff (staff line 1), and the mid tom right below that space, on the line (staff line 2).


The notation for additional toms your drum set may include.

Depending on the type of drum set you're playing, you may or may not have both a high and mid tom available. Additional toms below the typical tom 1, or high tom, and tom 2, or mid tom, are placed on the first line from the top (staff line 0) or right above it (staff line -1).

The regular hi-hat notation as well as the pedal hi-hat.

Usually situated above the top line (staff line -1), thehi-hat has several different variations of notation on drum sheet music.

The hi-hat is notated using an X, as it is a cymbal, with a stem. The regular hi-hat notation is located above the top line (staff line -1). The hi-hat pedal notation is sat underneath the bottom line, below the bass drum notation, and is represented as an X with a stem as well.

Ride Cymbal

The notation for an open hi-hat and a closed hi-hat.

In addition, articulation symbols can be used to denote how the hi-hat should be played. A small ‘o’ above the hi-hat note indicates the hi-hat should be open, whereas a small ‘+’ means the hi-hat should be closed. Several more notations indicate more unusual articulations, such as a loose hi-hat (ø) and open/close (o+).

The notation for the ride cymbal.

The largest of all the cymbals, the ride, is noted on the top black line (staff line 0). Just like other cymbals, the symbol to note the ride is an X with a stem.

Ride Bell

The notation for hitting the bell of the ride and hitting the ride cymbal as a crash.

The ride can be played in many ways from a gentle ping on the body of the ride cymbal, to using just the bell, or hitting it hard like a crash. The symbol for playing the bell of the ride is located on the same spot, but uses a little diamond instead of an X. The notation for playing the ride as a crash is the same as the regular notation for the crash, with a horizontal line added above.

Crash Cymbals

The notation for your first crash, and the second crash if you have one.

Crashes are located above the line of the hi-hat cymbal (staff line -2), written as an X with a stem like the other cymbals. The notation has a line running through it, as an imaginary line of the staff, to make it easier to distinguish from other lines. A second crash can be written above the imaginary line (staff line -3).

Splash Cymbals

The notation for the splash and Chinese cymbals.

Less commonly used cymbals are the splash cymbal and the Chinese cymbal. Both are located on a second imaginary line above the regular staff lines (staff line -4). The splash cymbal uses the symbol commonly used for cymbals, whereas the Chinese cymbal is written using an X surrounded by a circle.

Alternative Drum and Cymbal Notation

You'll know that there are several different ways of playing a drum or cymbal. From rim shots to bell ride playing, this table provides an overview for the variations of some of the drum and cymbal notations.

Alternative Drum and Cymbal Notation


Drum Style

Staff Line


Snare Drum Head Staff line 3
Doubles (drum roll)
Ride Cymbal Ride Staff line 0
Hi-Hats Open Staff line -1
Pedal Staff line 9
Crash Cymbal Hit Staff line -2

Drum Accents

Drumming isn't all about hitting drums and cymbals randomly,you've got to have control, panache, and flair. That's why accents can be used in drum notation.

Accents occur when you hit the drum or cymbal differently. It might be louder, quieter, higher, or lower. You might do a cymbal choke crash technique, where you grab the cymbal after hitting it, causing the crash sound to stop abruptly.

Types of Accents

There are lots of accent types in drumming that can be used for all sorts of drum music. These are four of the most common accent drum techniques:

The drag notation has small sixteenth-note symbols just before the note, with an underneath curve joining them.

Drag: The drag drum technique is created by striking the drum twice quickly with one stick followed by a single stroke with your other drum stick. It sounds like three notes played quickly together.

The flam notation is represented by a small note before a normal-sized note with a curved line underneath.

Flam: The flam drum technique is where you strike the drum with both sticks, with each strike slightly apart. It almost sounds like one note when played.

The ghost accent notation has a pair of brackets around the head of the note.

Ghost: Theghost note drum technique lightly plays bouncy notes on a snare drum that sounds like notes played in quick rhythmic succession.

The marcato notation has an upward-facing V symbol above it.

Marcato: Sometimes, you need to make a particular drum, cymbal, or snare loud and prominent in the song. The marcato technique just does that.

Music Notation

Besides understanding drum notation, it is important to learn general music notation. This is because the music staff has other symbols and marks that help you read sheet music.

The Drum Notation Clef

The drum clef, followed by a 4/4 time signature.

The drum or percussion clef is a symbol at the beginning of the piece of drum sheet music consisting of two thick, vertical lines, which look like drumsticks. These tell you that this piece of music is yours to play. Sheet music with other clefs are to be used by other instruments.

Measures and Bar Lines

Measures usually consist of four beats and are separated by bar lines. Most of the time, measures will be separated by a single barline, although exceptions exist for showing repeats and jumps. The barlines contain your measures and beets, whichkeeps your sheet music organized and easy to read.

Time Signature

The time signature in drum notation is represented by two numbers, just like on other sheet music. The top number represents the number of beats in a measure, whereas the bottom number represents the note value of one beat. The most common time signature is 4/4, which has four beats per measure, where each beat is a quarter note. A more difficult example is ⅞, where each measure has seven beats, and each beat is an eight note.

Thetime signature is always written at the beginning of the sheet of music and at any point where a time signature change occurs throughout the music.

Different Length Notes

A quarter note, half note, and whole note.

It's not just the quarter note that appears in the measure. You can have longer notes, such as whole notes and half notes.

A quarter note, eight note, sixteenth note, and thirty-second note.

There are notes smaller than quarter notes as well, such as eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and even smaller fractions. The name indicates what fraction of a measure the length of the note is.

A triplet, where three notes are played in the duration of two.

Sometimes you can even have tuplets. These allow you to play a certain amount of notes in another timeframe. The most common type is the triplet, which tells you to play three notes in the space of two, and is indicated using a small ‘3’ and a line linking the notes together.


BPM (Beats per minute) or tempo tells you how fast you need to play the song. Having your metronome handy is crucial to get this locked in. You can check this handy video on how to play drums to a metronome.

In the upper left corner the tempo of the song is shown. In this case, 80 beats, or quarter notes, per minute.

At the beginning of the drum notation sheet, you'll notice a note, usually a quarter note, with a number next to it.This tells you the Beats Per Minute (BPM) or Tempo. It shows you the note value, such as a quarter note, and how many times that note value gets counted in a minute.

Repeat Signs

As you well know, a lot of drumming includes the repetition of patterns and rhythms. Drumming sheet music recognizes this. So, to save space and avoid unnecessary complications, repeat signs are used. These tell you to play the same part again.

A one-bar repeat sign.

There are different repeat signs. The most commonly used is a one-bar repeat sign, indicated by two dots on either side of a diagonal line. It tells you to repeat the previous measure once.

A two-bar repeat sign and a four-bar repeat sign.

A two-bar repeat sign looks the same as a one-bar repeat sign except with two diagonal lines. It tells you to repeat the previous two measures. A flour-bar repeat sign is sometimes used, which tells you to repeat the previous four measures.

Tips on How to Read Drum Music

  • Take it slowly - If you're just starting, it's okay to go slower than the set BPM. You can always speed up later. The technique comes first, tempo comes second.
  • Break it up - Break the song into measures of 4, 8, or more. Focus on smaller parts of the song, so you can practice them repeatedly.
  • Repetition - Do several 10- to 15-minute sessions on notation technique a day as part of your daily drum practice.

Final thoughts

The way we learn drumming is a personal choice. Some of us start with technique and build up speed, and some of us start with the basics getting speed locked in and bringing in technique later. 

Whether you do one or the other learning drum notation alongside will give you a solid foundation to becoming a strong and solid drummer. You'll learn a new way to approach the drum kit with the ability to sight-read new songs and educate yourself on your favourite classics.

Not sure where to go next? Get the Master Drummer Roadmap for free.

Join over 50,000 drummers and get the Master Drummer Roadmap for free. You'll learn new things on the drums like:

  • The complete roadmap to uplevel your drumming fast
  • How to construct a practice plan that gives you CONSISTENT progress
  • The 7 mistakes holding your drumming back
  • Brand new beats, fills, and exercises that benefit drummers of all levels

Leave your first name and email address below to get INSTANT access to the course!

Online Drum School

Join Drum Beats Online Academy

Join DBO Academy to take your drumming to the next level fast!

Get The Master Drummer Roadmap For FREE!
Learn the secret to becoming a Master Drummer with this FREE 1-week course!

Related Posts