How do you read sheet music for drums?

Previously, I wrote a deep introduction to reading drum scores. If you’re a fresh beginner in drums and want a clear, fundamental understanding of drum scores, drum notations and how to count time as a drummer, read that piece.

Else, in this article, I’ll be focusing specifically on how do you read sheet music for drums. Here’s what I cover, if your fundmentals are set, you can skip the first section:

Drum Sheet Music Basics

Before I dive right in, here’re the essentials you need to know to get started.

What is sheet music?

Also commonly referred to as drum notation, drum score or drum tabs, sheet music simply refers to the notes of a song, written down.

Using sheet music allows us to transfer information, allowing drummers around the world to share their scores and replicate a piece of music. Really useful if you want to play covers but are not able to improvise from scratch! Also really useful if you plan to write your own music.

What are drum notes?

Unlike most other instruments, sheet music for drums do not indicate a chord or traditional musical notes. Instead, it gives you an idea of the timing, rhythm and the particular drum pieces required for the song.

Here’re all the drum notes available:

drum noteation

Essential drum notes

I’m a strong believer of the Pareto Principle, aka the 80/20 rule. So here’re the essential “20%” that you’ll want to know:

If you’re starting out with an adult’s beginner drum kit like the Yamaha Rydeen, the above note are sufficient.

Smaller beginner drum kits like the Ludwig’s Pocket Kit include just a single rack Tom and one crash or ride cymbal. If you’re on one of those kit, congratulations, you have two less notes to memorise for now!

How do you read sheet music for drums?

You read drum sheet music from left to right, using the position of the notes on the stave to determine which drum part to play. The time signature tells you how you should be counting your bars and when you should be playing each note.

As mentioned above, here are the essential drum notes you should know:

Regardless of how your drum sheet music or drum notation is presented, there are a few key features:

  • The musical stave (aka staff) which is made up of 5 equally spaced horizontal lines.
  • The time signature tells you the timing of the drum piece. (usually located on the extreme left of the bar, or only on the first bar)

When learning from books or drum guides, drum sheet music are usually annotated or printed in this format:


You should learn to read and be comfortable with traditional drum sheet music, especially if you plan to go pro.

That said, there are many drum sheet music and drum tab resources available online today. Here’re some alternative forms of drum sheet music and how to read them:

Alternative forms of drum sheet music

If you’re using online tab or notation tools to find crowdsourced drum sheet music, you may come across sheet music that are written like this:

These are written very much like guitar tabs.

Most of the time, the drum part will be indicated on the left of the modified stave, and the notes tell you when to play the part. The example above doesn’t indicate the time signature, you may have to play along with the actual track when you practice, in order to find out the timing.

The creators of the drum tabs would usually explain their annotations before the tab, read those before you attempt to play:

Such tabs may be easier for beginners to read and process. I would use them to add some fun into my own practice sessions but would still put in the effort to get comfortable with the traditional drum sheet music format.

Start practicing!

I hope this quick guide has given you the essentials you need to start reading drum sheet music with confidence. All that’s left is to practice and get comfortable with it!

As a start, you can purchase traditional drum sheet music from websites like or get crowdsourced tabs from

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