Learning to understand sheet music is an integral part of your transformation into a real musician. It’s not always the easiest thing to pick up, but with careful practice and taking the time to learn the basics, you’ll be a pro in no time.
If you’re a novice drummer, you should be proud of yourself for even taking the time to understand why reading sheet music is so important. Not all drummers desire or work to understand these technical aspects.
It’s entirely possible to become a top-notch drummer without ever setting your eyes on a piece of sheet music. However, learning a few tricks and understanding sheet music will help you expand your world as a drummer and embrace music as power.
Why do you need sheet music?
If you’re new to the music scene, you might not even be sure what sheet music is.
Sheet music is a written notation that represents things such as melodies, lyrics, rhythms, and pitches. It’s how classical music is recorded and distributed so that it can be learned and performed by anyone.
Modern musicians often learn music “by ear” without sheet music. However, sheet music still serves as the universally-accepted form of notating music on paper.
Think drummers don’t need sheet music? Think again. Understanding musical notation and sheet music will help you get quicker in your understanding of drum concepts and help you to stand out from the crowd of other drummers who can only play by ear.
Becoming proficient at reading drum sheet music also comes with several additional advantages. You'll be more likely to:
- Ace any audition
- Secure that spot in a band
- Book a gig
- Sharpen your own musical genius
There are so many drummers that haven’t taken the time to understand sheet music. What this means is that if you do indeed understand sheet music, you immediately stand out. It’s an impressive skill and will serve you well if you plan to continue involvement in music.
Here are four reasons understanding sheet music is still important in an age of “learning by ear”.
Benefits of learning drumming sheet music:
1 - Learn Music Faster. Learning by ear is a great skill, but it doesn’t always click. Difficult songs can require a lot more time spent practicing to get right. On the other hand, if you have the sheet music, you can learn just about anything without the mystery. You might even be able to sight-read music eventually.
2 - Play Accurately. Even if you have an exceptionally good ear, it’s smart to double check the sheet music to confirm your accuracy. You don't have to keep it in front of you at all times while playing. You can simply refer to it as an “answer key” for perfect rhythm.
3 - Work as a team. While you might be comfortable learning and playing by ear, not all musicians work that way. If you’re hoping to work with a band or within an orchestra, you’ll need to be able to learn music their way. Don’t be the only one who can’t understand the sheet music.
- - Write your own music. If you want to unleash your creative musician and make your own music, you’ll need a way to record it. Making audio recordings will allow others to hear your creations. However, writing the sheet music will make it widely distributable. Creating music in this universally-understood notation will help spread your music far and wide.
What's the difference between typical sheet music and drum sheet music?
Many people get thrown off when they look at drum notation sheet music. That’s because at first glance, it can look quite intimidating. In fact, it’s quite simple to grasp since there are only two things you need to understand:
- Which drum is played
- When it should be played
Drum sheet music notation uses all of the same symbols and set up as regular sheet music, so learning the basics is enough to help you comprehend both.
The main difference between drum notation sheet music is that the notes don’t relate to pitch. Of course not, because that is irrelevant for drummers. Instead, the notation of each line or space on drum sheet music corresponds to a particular drum that should be played.
Things you need to know about your sheet music:
Before you dive in and try to make sense of a full piece of drum sheet music, let’s break down the basics. Let’s get started with a quick vocabulary review.
Drum terminology to know:
- Beat - A measurement of music. Located within a bar, but can be subdivided further into notes.
- Backbeat - Typically beats 2 and 4 of each bar. Featured in most rock and pop music to give momentum.
- Downbeat - Notes played on the pulse.
- Upbeat - Notes played against the pulse.
- Time signature - Tells how many beats are within a measure and what kind of beats they are.
- Bars - How music is measured. Allows musicians to break down the music more easily.
- Crochet - A quarter note.
- Quaver - An eighth note.
- Semiquaver - A sixteenth note.
- Minim - A half note.
- Whole note - There is no term for a whole note. It has the value of 4 quarter note beats.
Not familiar with these terms at all? Don’t worry. That was just a primer before we dive into most of these terms more deeply.
First thing’s first: The staff and bars
This is also called the stave. These terms are often used interchangeably.
The staff is what holds all of the notations. It’s made up of five lines and four spaces. Typical sheet music would use the placement of notes on the lines and spaces as a designation for pitch. Drum sheet music, on the other hand, uses placement of the notes to designate which drum or cymbal should be used.
You’ll also notice vertical bars on the staff. These divide up the measures so that it’s easier to count out and stay on beat. The measure, then, is the distance between the two bar lines. If you see a double bar line, that signals the end of a section of music.
Next up: the notes
You’ll notice in the image above that some notes have proper circle notes, while some have small Xs or other symbols. A proper note signifies a drum, while the Xs refer to cymbals and the other symbols have special meanings.
This might sound like a lot to remember. Don’t get overwhelmed. Luckily, there’s an easy way to use the drum kit you have: know it like the back of your hand to make sense of drum notation.
Use this diagram to help. The height of where the note for a particular drum or cymbal will be on the staff corresponds to the where you physically play it.
For example, both the hi-hat cymbals and the bass drum are played with the foot. That’s why they are located so far down on the stave. On the other hand, cymbals that you play with your hands high above the drums are at the highest points of the staff.
The staff positioning was created logically so that it makes sense to drummers. Use your intuitive knowledge of your drum kit to help.
Moving on: time signatures
A time signature is the notation at the beginning of each piece of drum music that identifies what the meter of the music will be. It communicates the number of beats per measure. They are formatted as two numbers, one on top of the other. Most time signatures have a 4 as the bottom number, meaning the meter is based on quarter notes. Sometimes they might have another number, like an 8, at the bottom. This means it is comprised of a number of eighth notes.
Here’s how to tell them apart:
- The most common time is a 4/4 meter. It’s actually called “common time.” This means each time you tap a beat, it is equivalent to one quarter note. Now, this doesn’t mean the music will only be comprised of quarter notes. It can be made of half notes, eighth notes, rests, etc. As long as it equals four quarter notes, it works.
- Waltz time is another common time signature that is in 3/4 meter. This means each measure is comprised of three quarter note beats. The first beat of the three is a downbeat while the next two are upbeats. It creates the classic “waltz” style of music.
- March time is 2/4 meter. It is equivalent to chopping a 4/4 meter in half. With this time signature, you start and stop on the downbeat.
- Another common time signature without a 4 on the bottom is 6/8 time. This means the beat is not based on quarter notes, as it was in the other examples given. It’s a grouping of six eighth notes in each measure. In counting out the beat to eight, the downbeats are on one and four.
Quick guide to notes:
Now that you understand the foundation of drumming sheet music ( staff, time signature, and measures), let's get into the actual playing of notes. While you won’t need to understand what pitch the notes have (because drum notes don’t have pitch), you do need to understand how different notes affect the rhythm.
(Image Source: Drumming Review: https://drummingreview.com/drum-sheet-music/)
There are a bunch of different notes that each represent how long the beat should be held. The graphic above should make it easier to understand what they look like and how they differ. The longest notes are whole notes, and the shortest are sixteenth notes.
To understand how these notes all relate, think of it this way:
- A whole note is represented by a note head. Notice there is no stem. A whole note equals a duration of one measure.
- A half note is half of the whole note, as its name so cleverly implies. If you’re working in Common time, two half notes would equal the duration of one measure.
- A quarter note, just as above, is ½ of a half note and a quarter of a whole note. In Common time, there can be four quarter notes in one measure.
- An eighth note splits even further. Eight of these would equal one whole note. In one bar, there would be eight of them in Common time.
- Finally, sixteenth notes are the smallest note. You can fit sixteen of them in one measure in 4/4 time.
See the pattern here? It all breaks down evenly.
Keep in mind that for every value of note, there is a rest of equal value. For example, there are eighth rests and quarter rests and even sixteenth rests. Rests are crucial. In a lot of music, drums aren’t the most important part. Often, it’s the breaks in between the drums that are paramount. That’s why understanding how long to hold your rests will be crucial to your playing.
When you combine notes and rests with different durations, you make a rhythm.
How do I understand notes and when to play?
Notes are a big help to answer the question “when do I play?” The timing is everything in drumming. A drum keeps the beat alive in music. It also helps to keep the whole band together if playing with other musicians. A drummer must be able to follow the beat precisely. Here’s how notes can help you understand when your moment is:
- First, look at the time signature. We covered this above. This will let you know how fast the music’s “pulse” is. By understanding the meter, you’ll understand when beats should be played and when you should hold off. If you’re playing on a different tempo than everyone else, it can throw off the music entirely.
- Next, find the line or space in which the note is. Remember the drum key graphic above and how the set up of your actual drum kit helps to indicate which position represents which drum or cymbal.
- Finally, the note length itself comes in. Now that you know the tempo and what drum should be hit, you just need the note length within the tempo. If you’re confused about what a note’s length should be, add up all the notes with the lengths you guess and confirm that it equals the time signature. For example, if you think there are three quarter notes and one half note in a measure of 4/4 time, that wouldn’t make sense.
A Common Beat - What you’ll start to recognize when you can read sheet music:
Once you’ve studied the above concepts closely, you’ll begin to get more familiar with sheet music. Once you can read sheet music, entirely new worlds will be opened up to you in the music industry.
Whether you want to break into the big leagues or just make the cut into a local band, a background in reading sheet music is a big advantage. Here’s how you’ll notice this advantage coming into play in your drumming life:
- Are you a part of a band? If so, ensuring you’re using sheet music just like the other members will help everyone match up. Instead of relying on your ear to tell you the right rhythms and drums to hit, you’ll have it written down in front of you to reference. While this might seem like a small difference, it can really pay off for your group’s overall sound. Your band members will be impressed with your technical know-how. Your audience will notice a higher quality to your sound. And you’ll be proud of yourself for striving towards and reaching this goal.
- When you understand sheet music, you can grow your repertoire easily. There are many common beats that are used interchangeably in popular songs. This makes them catchy and consistent. For example, ever heard of the “money beat?” While the term might not be familiar to you, you’ve definitely heard it in action. One of the most common beats in music is this “money beat.” It even got its name from the number of songs on the radio that commonly borrow it. Some of the most popular songs that feature a “money beat” are Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, John Mayer’s Heartbreak Warfare, and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. Even if you’re a beginner, you can still pick up on these fundamental beats. You can impress your friends and family by “jumping in” to common songs and playing along.
- Having the confidence of a sheet music reader, you’ll be able to unleash your creativity on the drums. When you have to sit and wait carefully to hear your cue to play, you limit yourself. When you know exactly when you come in and how long of a break you have, you can get into a gnarly drum solo and show everyone the skills you’ve got.
In this article, we’ve shown you the difference between a novice drummer and a knowledgeable sheet music reader. By following and studying the concepts and skills outlined above, you’ll be able to grow your drumming knowledge, and expand your opportunities.
Not all drummers have the motivation or dedication to learn the technical aspects. By putting in the effort, you’ll distinguish yourself as someone who is serious about the art.
So take your drumming to the next level by mastering drumming sheet music today. Ready to take it a step even further? Check out the high-quality drums and accessories we offer at Drum Center of Portsmouth.