Reading Drum Music | Trust Me It's Easy!

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

How to read drum sheet music


Drum music is typically written in Bass Clef. However with drums, you don't need to worry about key signatures so it doesn't really matter. You may ask ''So is it hard to read drum music?'' and I will answer you - Hell no!

There is standard method for writing out drum notations. However, drum charts can be altered or modified to meet various needs, such as kits with more drums.

The most important thing for any drummer in reading drum music is to note the TIME signature of the chart. Most music is typically written in 4/4 time. The top number represents how many notes per measure you're counting. The bottom note represents what TYPE of note you're counting. So in 4/4 time, you're counting four(top) quarter(bottom) notes: 1...2...3...4...|1...2...3...4...|1...2... etc...

If you see 7/8 time. That means you're counting seven(top) eighth(bottom) notes which are twice as fast as quarter notes:||1.2.3. etc...

If you see 9/16 time, That means you're counting nine(top) sixteenth(bottom) notes which are twice as fast as eighth notes: 123456789|123456789|1234 etc...

Got it ?

The Hi-Hat is usually notated with an X on the top of the stave /staff. If it is a full oval, this could represent either a crash or a ride cymbal.

Between the 2nd and third line of the stave/staff, the snare drum is notated with a full oval. If an X is here, that means to play a rim shot or "cross-stick". You typically turn the stick upside down with the tip in about 2 inches from the edge of the rim and "click" the butt end of the stick down on the snare with as much of your hand as possible. you don't HAVE to turn the stick up side down, but I find I get a more defined "Clack!" if I do.

Just below the snare on the third line is where your toms typically start. As you drop a line or space, you go down one tom so the space in between the 3rd and 4rth line is Tom 2. On the 4rth line is your floor tom.

The bass drum is typically notated in the space in between the 4rth and 5th line. If you have 2 bass drums, you notate the second one on the 5th line.

Reading Sheet Music

Reading sheet music is a key skill to learn as a working drummer. Often, we are given a chart for a tune and expected to be able to read it properly, following all the directions and markings, and navigating the roadmap without error.

Reading charts is not very complicated. There are a simple set of rules to follow, and they don’t take very long to understand. What makes it so tricky for some people is that it takes focus.

Most drummers start out learning music by ear, which is very natural and a great way to go. However, reading sheet music requires the use of the conscious mind. You’ve always got to be focusing. You have to keep track of which bar you are currently at, if there is a repeat, how many times it repeats and which time you are currently on, if there is a coda and where it is if there are solo sections and/or open sections, cued sections, etc.

It sounds tough, but it just takes a little practice to get used to where to place your focus at any given moment. Never fear, I’ll walk you through the basic elements of reading sheet music…

They are…

  • Pickups
  • Repeats
  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd endings, etc.
  • D.S. and D.C.
  • The Coda


A pickup or an “anacrusis” are a couple of notes of music just before the official first beat of the piece of music. It comes up fairly often when reading sheet music.

The pickup could be one note, could be a short run, maybe a drum fill, or pretty much anything else that the composer wants to lead into his first beat of the music.

A typical pickup could look something like this.

A pickup can be a key element to catch when you are reading. In this example, if someone counts you in with a “1, 2, 3, 4″, you would being playing the pickup on the “and” of 3. That would sound like: “1, 2, 3 and a 4“. after that you would proceed to hit beat 1 with everyone else.


Repeats are one of the things you’re going to see the most of when reading sheet music, as drums tend to be one of the more repetitive instruments.

In almost all music, there are going to be parts that happen more than once. Composers can save time and valuable page space by using repeat signs to indicate which sections are to be played more than once. There are 2 types of repeats that are used.

1-bar/2-bar repeats

1 bar repeats are used to indicate that “this bar of music should be played like the last bar”, or in the case of 2-bar repeats, “These two bars should be played just like the last 2 bars”.

They look like this…

More than 2 bar repeats can be notated in this way as well, but are less common.

Repeat Barlines

You will also encounter repeat barlines, which are symbols placed at the beginning of one bar, and the end of another to indicate a section of bars that should be repeated.

The symbols look like this…

These symbols indicate that the section of bars indicated is to be repeated one time (unless otherwise indicated with a written “3x”, or “4x”, etc.), after which you are meant to carry on with the rest of the music.

1st, 2nd, 3rd Endings, etc.

The system of having different “endings” to a section ties in with the concept of repeats. Repeats are critical to properly notating this “endings” system.

The system of first and second (sometimes third, fourth, etc.) endings is a great one to use when you have a section of music that is to be repeated, but with a slight alteration at the end.

If you don’t want to re-write the entire section (again, saving composing time AND page space for the reader), you can simply write in a first ending, and a second ending, which looks like this…

The first time around, you take the first ending, which contains a repeat barline. This sends you back to the top. When you get to the first ending sign again, you skip it and go right to the second ending sign. In this case, the second ending contains a fermata, but it can easily (and often does) continue into another section of the music.

D.S. and D.C. Signs

Sometimes, when reading sheet music, you’ll see either the letters “D.S.”, or “D.C.”, followed by the words “al coda”, or “al fine” somewhere near the end of the chart.

If anyone of these 4 options arises, I’ll explain what will happen in each case.


D.S. means “Dal Segno”, or “from the sign”. What is “the sign” you might ask? It looks like this:

When you see “D.S. al fine” or “D.S. al coda” written, you simply jump from the point indicated by the words, back to the point indicated by the sign.


D.C. is a little easier to explain. It means “From The Top”. So, when you see “DC Al Coda”, or “DC Al Fine”, you return to the beginning of the piece.

What about “al fine” and “al coda”

When you see “al fine”, you simply play the piece until it’s ending, this time skipping the DS or DC signs.

When you see “al coda”, you jump to the “coda” at the indicated sign. What is a “coda”? Keep reading!

The Coda

The coda is a little chunk of music at the end of a chart. When reading sheet music, it very important to take note of where the coda sign are, because these contain the songs ending. Nothing sounds worse than when the ending of a song isn’t tight!

The coda sign looks like this…

If there is a coda, there will be two coda signs in the piece of music. The first one is in the body of the music, indicating where you should jump out FROM. The next one is located at the start of the actual coda, indicating where you should jump TO.

SO if you see “D.S. Al Coda”, or “D.C. Al Coda” you:

  • Follow the first instruction (either jump to the sign or the top).
  • Read along until you get to the coda sign.
  • Jump from the first coda sign to the second coda sign.
  • End the music!

Keep practicing reading sheet music!