Beginner and Intermediate Drum Notation

Posted in Guides And Tips


Understanding drum notation is a key part of learning the drums. If we can’t read music, we can’t get very far in understanding music theory.

As I’ve said before, music theory is key in using the rest of this website. Many of my examples are written out, and many of my descriptions involve notational terms (quarter note, eighth note, etc.).

So, as you can probably see, the notation is a must-learn for any beginner drummers out there.

This is the first of 3 lessons in drum notation (beginner, intermediate, advanced). In this installment, I’ll cover the bare fundamentals of notating rhythm.

  • Time Signature
  • Basic Note Values
  • Basic Rests
  • Tied Notes
  • Drums On The Staff

Time Signature

The time signature sets the groundwork for how we read all sheet music. It’s one of the fundamentals of drum notation.

A time signature consists of 2 numbers, one on top of the other. I’ll explain what they mean in a second. When we want to express a time signature using words, we simply say the top number, then the bottom number. For example…

We might also occasionally see signs for “common time” and “cut time”. Common time just means 4/4, because it’s such a popular time signature. “Cut Time” is another way to say 2/4, or 2/2. Any time with a pulse felt in 2′s can be called “cut time” or “half time”.

What do these numbers mean? It’s quite simple. The top number tells us how many beats there are in the bar, and the bottom number tells us what value those beats are.

For example, “4/4″ time tells us there are 4 quarter notes to a bar. “6/8″ tells us there are 6 8th notes. “7/16″ tells us there are 7 sixteenth notes.

The top number is the number that we count when we count the beats of a bar out loud. In 4/4, I’ll count “1 2 3 4″, and each of those will represent a one-quarter note. The quarter note, in this case, is the unit of pulse (the BOTTOM number). In 6/8, I will count “1 2 3 4 5 6″, and each one of those counts will represent one 8th note in that bar of music.

Top number = what you count verbally. Bottom number = what unit of rhythm that count represents.

The top number can be any number! The bottom number, however, has certain limitations. The bottom number has to be a note value that we are familiar with in our drum notation system. For example, there are no such things as “Fifth Notes”. “4/5″ time signature would not be very playable/readable to most musicians on earth.

For that bottom number, you’ll only see the numbers 1(rarely), 2(slightly more common), 4(most common), 8(second most common), 16, and 32(in rare occasions). These represent note values. (Respectively) whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, 8th notes, 16th notes and 32nd notes.

Not sure what those note values mean? Read on!

Note Values

First of all: a common mistake people make when they learn about drum notation and music theory is to associate note values with speed.

They’ll say “16th notes are fast”, and “whole notes are slow”. This is often true, but it’s entirely possible for whole notes in one song to be faster than the sixteenth notes in another song.

Note values are simply relative terms to describe rhythm. In the same piece of music, in the same time signature, in the same tempo, a quarter note is exactly twice as fast as a half note, and half as fast as an 8th note. But that’s the most information about “speed” we can get from note values.

Note values are only meant to be understood in relation to each other. For example, 8th notes in one song can sound exactly like the quarter notes in another song. You can even re-write a piece of sheet music, change it’s note values, and have it sound exactly the same. For example: if you turn all whole notes into half notes, all half notes into quarters, quarter notes into 8th note, all 8ths into 16th, all 16th into 32nds, etc. (basically double every note value), then cut the tempo in half, you will have the same sounding piece of music. Why? Again, because all note values are understood relative to each other.

These are the 5 basic rhythmic values in drum notation…

The Whole Note.
There are 4 quarter notes per whole note.
The Half Note.
There are 2 quarter notes per half note.
The Quarter Note.
The Eighth Note.
2 of these per quarter note.
Strung together they look like:
The Sixteenth Note.
4 of these per quarter note.
Strung together they look like:

How do we use these?

Well, we must understand that a bar of music must contain its full value

For example, a bar of 4/4 must contain 4 quarter notes or any equivalent of that. Given what we now know about note values, there are many ways we can fill a bar of 4/4. Here are a few.

Counting And Reading Out Loud

We also have a conventional way of counting rhythms verbally. Since the common (but not the only) way to write rhythm in drum notation has always been with the quarter note as the pulse, our verbal counting system is also based on the quarter note.

Typically quarter notes are counted with numbers. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc…”.

Eighth notes are counted by saying “and” in between quarter notes. “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and, etc…”

16th notes are counted by saying “e” and “a” between quarters and 8th notes. “1 e and a, 2 e and a, 3 e and a, 4 e and a, 5 e and a, etc…”

With this vocal counting system, I can convey basic rhythms using text alone! If I say “1 e and 2, 3-e-and-a 4 and”, you can visually imagine this bar of written music…

One thing we cannot express textually is a rest. What are rests? Read on!

Rests

Rests are ways that we express silences in drum notation. As I mentioned before, a bar of music must contain its full value. This is easy to do with notes, but what if a bar is meant to be completely silent? Or only has one or two notes in it, but the rest of the bar is meant to be silent?

This is where rests become absolutely essential. They allow us to accurately show spaces of silence in music… And silence is more important than sound!

Each note value has an equivalent in rests. Here’s the list.
Whole note rest (shown on the staff)
Half note rest (shown on the staff)
Quarter note rest
Eighth note rest
16th note rest

Rests can be used just like notes. Here are a couple examples of rests in a bar of 4/4.

  1. The first 8th note of beat 2 is silent.
  2. The first 16th note of beat 1 and the first 8th note of beat 3 are silent.
  3. Beats 1 and 2 are silent, as well as the last eighth note of beat 4.
  4. Beats 1 and 2, plus the first 8th note of beat 3 are silent.

Tied Notes

Another key aspect of learning to read drum notation is the understanding of tied notes.

When two notes are tied together, it looks like this:

All it means is that the two note values are combined. A quarter note tied to a half note will create a note worth 3 quarter notes (a half note is worth 2 quarters). It also means that only the first note is actually played, all other notes in a string of tied notes are not attacked, they are simply held over from the first note.

Ties are not always essential, sometimes we can express the same rhythmic idea using other methods like different note values, or dotted rhythm (which I’ll explain in lesson 2).

However, sometimes we NEED to use a tie. I’ll explain…

Beat 3 in 4/4

Another weird, but useful aspect of conventional drum notation is the fact that the middle beat of a bar must be shown! Usually, this applies to beat 3 in 4/4 and beat 4 in 6/8.

This means that you cannot put, for example, a half note on beat 2 of a bar of 4/4. Even if you want it to sound like there is a half note on beat 2, you have to show a note on beat 3. How do we get around this? We use a tie!

You can tie a quarter note on beat 2 to a quarter note on beat 3 and, voila! Problem solved, thanks to ties.

Ties are also quite useful when we want a rhythm to be carried over to the next bar. We can use a tie to connect to notes over the barline.

Drum Legend

The final section of this first drum notation lesson will deal with the legend (which lines of the staff represent which drums?)

Now, this may vary from chart to chart, and most of the time there is a drum legend included in a well-written chart. But for those charts that don’t contain a reference, this is the most common list of which drums go where on a musical staff!

That’s it for the basic drum notation lesson. Next, we’ll deal with triplets and dotted rhythms among other interesting stuff!

Intermediate Drum Notation

In the first drum notation lesson, we covered the basics. However, this doesn’t mean that all the notation elements have been discussed! Some vital parts still remain.

I’ve gone over basic rhythmic values, rests, the concept of always showing a complete bar of music, tied notes, and the basic placement of the different drums on the staff, but there are still some gaps that need to be dealt with.

Dotted rhythms, basic triplets, and drum specific symbols like flams or doubled strokes are all really important parts of reading drum music that I’ve saved for this slightly more advanced lesson.

Here are some of the essential parts of drum notation that have not been discussed yet…

  • Dotted Rhythms
  • Triplets
  • Doubled Notes
  • Roll Notation
  • Flam Notation

Dotted Rhythms

In drum notation, dotted rhythms appear very frequently. So frequently in fact, that I probably could have included them in part 1. Either way, they’re quite simple to explain.

A dotted noted is worth 1.5 times its original value. So that means a dotted quarter note would be worth a quarter note plus an eighth note, a dotted half note would be worth a half note plus a quarter note, etc.

Here’s an example…

The dotted quarter note in the example above is worth 3 eight notes. So, the next note (or rest) that appears on the staff would need to be on the “and” of 2. In this case, it’s an 8th note tied to a quarter (because we always need to show beat 3 in 4/4, as I mentioned in lesson 1).

This example could ALSO be a part of a 3/8 cross-rhythm, which would span over the barline, but that is something we’ll cover in the Polyrhythm Lesson.

Triplets

In our drum notation system, music is either grouped in twos or in threes. Music grouped in threes has naturally occurring triplets. Music grouped in twos can still have triplets occur on occasion, but we need to notate them properly. I’ll explain both cases.

Music Grouped In 3s

If a piece of music has a time signature like 12/8, 6/8 or 9/8, the 8th notes will almost always be grouped into triplets, because those time signature tend to be felt in triplets.

Here’s an example

In a triplet-based time feel, you don’t need to add any extra notation (like a “3″ above the triplet), the triplets are implied.

Music NOT grouped in 3s

Much of our popular music today is not grouped in 3s, it is grouped in 2 (duple meters). However, there are many, many times when triplets can still be cool/appropriate to use.

For example, some music with a swung 8th note feel (like jazz or blues, shuffle, etc.) is still notated in duple time (like 4/4). This works for the first and last triplet, but whenever we want to express that middle triplet note, we need to actually notate the triplet.

“Swung” feel just means that a triplet feel is implied. Instead of writing a tune in 12/8, we can just write it in 4/4 and tell the reader that the 8th notes are “swung”, which makes them equal to the first and last notes of a triplet.

This is where triplet notation comes in. It’s quite simple. Simply group your 8th notes in 3, and write a “3″ above the grouping. Voila! You have a triplet…

It’s Actually A Basic Polyrhythm!

By using that little “3″ above your 8th note triplet, you’re actually telling the reader that there is a basic polyrhythm going on. The “3″ is actually just short for “3:2″, or “three in the time of 2″.

Confused? It’s simple. It just means there are 3 notes (8th notes in this case), evenly spaced over the time it would normally take for 2 notes (8th notes) to take place.

Triplets don’t just happen with 8th notes either, they can happen with quarter notes, 16th, half notes, etc. Even rests can be included in triplets! Just as long as you understand that the 3 implies “3 in the time of 2″, you’ll be good.

Quarter note triplet, for example…

Double Notes

There’s a unique aspect of drum notation that I’m not sure exists in common music notation: the doubled note.

It’s a simple concept, by putting a slash through a note’s stem, we indicate that the note is to be played as two notes, which will have half the value of the written note.

For example, a quarter note with one slash in the stem will be played as two 8th notes. An 8th with a slash will be played as 2 16ths.

When you add more slashes, you add more subdivisions. 2 slashes means you will play 4 notes at 4 times the rate. So, a quarter note with 4 slashes will be played as 4 sixteenth notes. A quarter with 3 slashes will be played as 8 32nd notes.

The amount of subdivisions is always equal to the length of the slashed note! This is important. 4 16ths fit into 1 quarter note, as do 8 32nd notes.

Roll Notation

The proper way to notate rolls in drum notation relies on the slashes we just talked about in the “doubled notes” section.

Basically, there are two types of drum rolls: the open (or controlled) roll, and the buzz roll. Both use similar notation, but there are distinct differences between the two.

The Controlled Roll

The controlled drum roll is when we play a double stroke roll with a set amount of notes in it. Five Stroke Rolls and Seven Stroke Rolls are examples of these, but many longers or shorter drum rolls can be played. There’s no limit, only proper notation!

Controlled rolls are written exactly like the slashed notes I just described. Typically, rolls are written as 32nd notes (4 slashes on a half note, 3 slashes on a quarter, 2 slashes on an 8th, 1 slash on a 16h note, etc..). At slower tempos, the roll might be a smaller subdivision, at faster tempos, it could get larger. It’s the sound that counts.

When we want a controlled roll to end on a beat, we tie the roll to that beat. This is contrary to the usual function of a tie, where the note receiving the tie is not attacked! A roll is an exception to the rule, which can get confusing. Here’s an example…

The Buzz Roll

To notate a buzz roll, we simply write a “Z” on the stem of the appropriate note value. For example, a quarter note buzz roll in drum notation would look like this…

Flam Notation

The last section of this intermediate drum notation lesson will deal with how we notate flams.

It’s not very difficult at all, actually. A flam is simply expressed by writing a smaller sized quarter or 8th note right before the note your targetted note.

Here’s a simple example…

There’s not much more to it than that. Since flams are counted as a single “beat”, they don’t take up any extra space notation wise. What I mean is that an eight note flam won’t count towards the “total rhythmic value” of the bar. In a bar of 4/4, you can have 4 quarter notes, with 4 written-in flams in front of each one (perhaps as 8th notes), and you won’t be “over the limit”.

That sums up the majority of the drum notation information. In part 3, we’ll tie up some loose ends and deal with some slightly more advanced notation like polyrhythms. Keep reading, and keep practicing!