If you are at the point that musical notes and counting for various note (and rest) divisions are understood, its time to dive into how to read drum set sheet music. The challenge when learning to read drum set sheet music is the application of notation to the various surfaces: drums, cymbals, and additional percussion.
- The first term to know is the staff, which is comprised of five lines and four spaces between lines. When learning to count drum sheet music, it all begins with the standard musical staff.
- A drum note to be played on a drum (snare, tom, bass) is written out as a circle, known as the note-head. An unfilled note-head is a whole-note, an unfilled note-head attached to a vertical line (stem) is a half-note, and a filled in or solid note-head with a stem is a quarter-note. Quarter notes and half notes have no flags attached.
- Eighth-notes are written out by using a solid note-head, a stem, and one squiggled line at the top of the stem (flag). Eighth-notes are linked together using a horizontal line (beam). Two or more eighth-notes in a row, can be written out as two single eight-notes or by linking the stems together with a beam. Both forms are accurate, but traditionally eighth-notes are linked together with one beam. Two beams or flags indicate sixteenth-notes, three beams or flags indicate thirty-second-notes, and so on.
- Cymbal notation uses the same concepts, except instead of solid or non filled circles for note-heads, x's are used. When learning to read drum set music, having different note-heads for drums and cymbals makes it easier. A plain "x" note-head indicates to play on the high-hat, An "x" note-head with a line through the "x" might mean crash cymbal. The bell of the cymbal has it's own note-head as well. The best way to understand this concept is to look in most drum books where a key is usually provided in the beginning explaining what each symbol means.
- Additional percussion add-on's such as triangles, wind chimes, or cow bells have different note-heads as well. When learning to read drum sheet music, the key or legend of a drum book will designate what these cymbals (diamond shapes, square shapes, whatever) mean. The same goes for writing music, assign these add-on's distinguishable note-heads.
- Now that the symbols are understood, it's time to place them on the staff to know what surface to play. When learning to read drum sheet music legends and symbols will vary from book to book, but traditionally the snare drum notes are written in the second space on the staff, the bass drum notes in the fourth space, the first tom in the first space, and the floor tom in the third space. Notation for the second tom can be written on the second line on the staff. Picture the second line of the staff cutting right through the note-head, this is how the second tom's notes are written on the staff. If a second bass drum is present, the last line of the staff would cut through the note-heads. A ghost-note (very quiet note) is written with ( ) around the note-head. The high-hat notes will sit on the top line of the staff, and crash cymbals will be slightly above the hi-hat notes. Each cymbal is going to have its own distinct note-head just like percussion add-on's. Try not to be overwhelmed by this concept, most books provide keys to indicate what each symbol means.
When learning to read drum set music, practice makes perfect, just like learning to play. Notation will vary from book to book but the underlining concepts will remain. To master reading music, examine various books, looking at the notation legends to understand the symbols. The legends are usually found in the beginning of the book. Start out slow concentrating on where everything is on the staff, and practice writing drum music to cement the staff placement to memory.