How to Read Drum Notation

Why should you learn how to read drum notation? Standard drum notation is the most powerful way of communicating a drum set beat. Therefore, nearly every drum book and exercise will use it, and learning drums will be much easier if you know how to read it. Unless you’re a professional, you don’t have to be a reading superstar to reap the benefits of drum notation. Just knowing the basic rules will give you access to a vast amount of learning material otherwise impossible to use.

The figure above shows a simple strip of drum notes. You can listen to how they sound by using the right side player. If you already know how to ready music for other instruments then there’s not much more to reading drum notation. Otherwise, I’ll explain all the important basics.

Each dot-and-stick or x-and-stick represents a note (sound). Music notation for other instruments, such as the piano, indicates the pitch of the note by the position of the dot on the five horizontal lines, called a staff. The higher the dot, the higher the pitch. In drum notation, the note’s position on the staff indicates a particular drum or a cymbal. Cymbal notes are often written with X’s instead of dots, but not always so. There is no universally accepted way of positioning specific drums or cymbals, but it is generally accepted that the bass drum is written at the bottom, the snare somewhere in the middle, and the hi-hat and cymbals up top. Sometimes, a piece of drum notation will be accompanied by a reading key that precisely indicates the positioning of the various percussion sounds on the staff. In common drum set music, as in the figure above, it is generally understood that the notes from top to bottom are hi-hat, snare, bass.

The timing of each sound depends on the progression of the notes from left to right. It’s almost as if there is an imaginary cursor going steadily from left to right on the staff and hitting each sound in turn. There is a little bit more to that, but in order to understand how to tell the timing of each note, I’ll introduce the concept of time signatures first.

The 4/4 symbol on the left is called a time signature. The time signature indicates how much time and how many beats are is in a measure. A measure is a slice of time in which the fundamental rhythm of the music repeats, although the notes are not generally the same. In music and drum notation each measure is separated by a vertical line. You can see that the first figure has two measures. 4/4 indicates that there are four quarter notes in a measure. The quarter is relative to a time unit called a whole note. This unit is not an absolute length of time (such as 10 seconds) but rather relative to how fast the song is played.

Mathematically saying that there are four quarters in a measure is the same as saying there is one whole note in a measure, but musically it’s different. For example, in the first figure above you can see that the bass and snare form a four note beat in a measure, and therefore it is more convenient to think of each measure as having four quarter notes and not one whole note. The time signature indicates a conceptual, fundamental beat in the music and the actual notes won’t usually repeat exactly. The 4/4 time signature is the most common in popular music, but other time signatures are certainly used, such as 3/4, 8/8, 6/8, and 5/4.

The time signature indicates how much “time” fills a measure, and that time is filled by notes. The shape of a note indicates how long it lasts. In percussion there’s typically no ability to sustain a sound, therefore, drum notes of a specific length actually mean hitting the drum (or cymbal, etc.) at the beginning, and doing nothing for the rest of the notes’ duration.

This is how notes of different lengths look like:

Name Image Comment
Whole Note Shaped like a hollow oval with no stick.
Half Note Lasts half as long as a whole note, and is shaped like hollow oval with a stick.
Quarter Note Lasts half as long as a half note, and shaped like filled oval with a stick.
Eighth Note Lasts half as long as a quarter note, and shaped like filled oval with a stick and a tail.
Sixteenth Note Lasts half as long as an eighth note, and has two
tails. Further halving of note lengths, to indicate 32nd and 64th notes
etc., is written by adding more tails.
Eighth Note This is another way to write adjacent eighth notes by connecting the tails.
Similarly 16th notes will have two horizontal, 32nd notes will have three lines, etc.
Sixteenth Note Connected 16th notes.
Eighth Triplet Notes These notes occupy the same time frame as two
eighth notes, and are written similarly, but there are three of them
with the numeral 3 written above.
Similarly, there are quarter triplets, 16th triplets, 32nd triplets, etc.

The sticks and tails can point upward or downward, as there is no difference in the meaning of the note and it’s just a matter of notational convenience. Also, a dot to the right of a note, like so , indicates that the note lasts one and a half times the length of the non-dotted note.

In addition to notes, music and drum notation also include rests that are silent space fillers between notes. Here’s how the rests look like:

Name Image Comment
Whole Rest Shaped like a filled box below a staff line.
Half Rest Shaped like a filled box above a staff line.
Quarter Rest Looks like a funny squiggly line.
Eighth Rest I don’t know what this looks like, but that’s an eighth rest.
Sixteenth Rest Add more dots to halve the rest time.
Eighth Triplet Rest

Rests can also be interjected within triplet notes. The bracket with the number 3 also indicates a triplet is in the making.

The following table shows some other symbols important to reading drum notation:

Name Image Comment
Accent The accent appears above a note and indicates an accented, i.e. stronger sounding, note.
Grace Note A grace note is a quick note that immediately precedes or follows another main note. The gap between the two notes is indeterminately short, and the time to play the grace is taken away from the main note. In drum notation, the grace appears as a small note tied to the main note.
Ghost Note A ghost note is a lightly audible, weak note. The parentheses indicate a ghost. This type of sound is particularly common in Jazz.
Roll The slashes across the note indicate a very fast roll that lasts the duration of the note. This is the closest a drum player can come to playing a sustained note.
Tie The tie is a line that connects two notes and fuses them into a single note that spans the length of the two combined.

One important thing to keep in mind while trying to understand drum notation is that the times of successive notes and rests within a measure must add up to the duration of a measure as indicated by the time signature. So for a 4/4 time signature, a measure has one hole note in it, and therefore if you have 3 successive quarter notes, they must be followed by a quarter rest. Also, simultaneous notes are of course possible and are usually written on top of one another.

Here are some drum notation examples:

Notation and Sound Comment

The first bass is a quarter note, and overlaps two 8th hi-hat notes. But because there is no sustain in percussion, the second hi-hat stands alone. The third hi-hat is played with the snare, which is also written as an 8th note, and shares its stem. The second bass note has a dot and lasts 1/8 + 1/16 = 3/16. Consequently because of the 1/16 offset, the fourth bass sound comes between the sixth and seventh hi-hat sounds.

The first snare sound in this beat comes between the second and third hi-hat. To make space for the snare, the second hi-hat is written as a 1/16 note, but because there is no sustain in the hi-hat (there’s different notation for an open hi-hat sound), it sounds the same as if it were an 1/8 note. The first bass note is 3/8 long, but again, because it’s a drum, a 1/4 note followed by a 1/8 rest would sound the same.

These are two measures of 3/4 time with wacky triplet notes. Note the rests between the hi-hat sounds.

When you read drum notes while trying to follow with the drum set, it is useful to count the beats and match the sounds to the count. For example, for a 4/4 time signatures, you’d count out one two three four one two three four one two three four…” In cases where there are “in between” notes, such as eighths in a 4/4 beat, it is also useful to add the word “and” between the numbers to mark the position between the beats, like so, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and…” For 16th notes you can count 1 eh and eh 2 eh and eh 3 eh and eh 4 eh and eh 1 en and eh …”


  1. fish 03. Oct, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    thanks, very useful!

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