Here is how to read drum notes. When to play a note is where the second layer of symbols comes in. And the most important symbol of this layer is this:
It will be placed at the very beginning of each piece of drum sheet music and you can safely ignore the number at the bottom for now.
Rather, focus on the number at the top which tells you how many notes can fit into a bar (i.e. a part of your sheet; more on that in a second…).
So? 4 notes, right? Right!
But what about this “bar” thing?
Well, 4 notes for an entire piece of music wouldn’t be cool. It would give about 0.1 to 4 seconds of music (if you made it awfully slow).
But fitting in, say, 400 instead of 4 notes wouldn’t be helpful either, because unless you’re an advanced musician, you need to count notes to be able to follow along. And you’d certainly lose track when trying to count to 400 and to play drums at the same time.
That’s why sheet music writers came up with the idea of bars (or “measures”) which are signified by a vertical line like this:
This way you can fit 400 notes into a piece of sheet music – giving you minutes and minutes of music – while only having to count to 4, because now the sequence of 400 notes would be broken into 100 bars containing 4 notes each.
Drum Music Notes
So you have your piece of drum sheet music in front of you and you’re counting “1, 2, 3, 4”? Cool!
But what to actually play while counting?
This is what notes tell you.
The most important ones are listed below and in order to read drum sheet music you need to be able to distinguish them by the way they appear in the “note” section (circle filled or unfilled; with or without vertical line; with or without tail).
But: don’t try to learn them by heart now; rather, come back later once you encounter problems in your actual reading of drum sheet music.
For now, let’s focus on the “length” column and imagine we were counting “1, 2, 3, 4” again. You’d then count and hit your drums as follows:
“Whole” and “half” notes are good for understanding the concept, but they actually almost never appear in drumming. So let’s look go over the remaining three note values one by one:
A quarter note takes up one beat, so you’d hit on count “1” and be done with it by the time you count “2”. Let’s assume for a second that what follows would be another quarter note, and another, and another. These 4 quarter notes would fill up a whole bar and be counted as follows:
“1, 2, 3, 4” and a hit on each of those counts – that’s all there is to it.
An eighth note, by contrast, only lasts half a beat, so half of each of your counts. You’d hit on “1” and the eighth note would end exactly mid-way between counts “1” and “2”.
But how to determine the exact middle between two counts? Well, by way of a more finely-grained counting system.
Instead of “1, 2, 3, 4”, we’d now count “1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and”. And hitting on count “1”, we’d now that the eighth lasts exactly until our first “and”.
So let’s again assume that a whole bar would be filled with eighth notes. This would give us a sequence of 8 eighth notes and look like this:
How do you play that? Right: you hit on counts “1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and”
Ready for the finale?
Sixteenth notes are shorter yet. They only last for one fourth of a beat. So we need a yet more finely-grained counting system:
“1, e, and, a, 2, e, and, a, 3, e, and, a, 4, e, and, a”. Hitting on count “1”, you’d know that one sixteenth note would exactly last until count “e”.
And how many sixteenth notes will fill up a whole bar?
16! And in a piece of drum sheet music this would look and be counted this way:
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