How to read Drum Score

I’ve got to admit, I’m no musical genius. I can’t learn just by listening to a song or watching a drummer play.

If you are like me, you’ll probably want to learn how to read drum scores.

This quick guide shows you how…and give a little more:

Table of Content (Click to skip to section)

What is a Drum Score?

‘Drum score” is the printed or written form of drum music or drum beats. It allows you to transcribe your drum music into written forms of music that you can then pass on to other drummers.

Drum score may also be referred to as ‘Drum Notation’, ‘Drum Sheet’ or even ‘Drum Sheet Music’.

And yea, I know of self-taught drummers who are proud of the fact that they can play well, even though they can’t read drum scores.

Who needs a drum score? I play by feel!


What if you had the chance to fill in as a drummer in your favorite band, for 1 gig…and all they had were drum scores left behind by their previous drummer?

Wouldn’t you be glad that you could read drum scores like a pro?

The next section will bring you just one step closer to that dream…

What’s In A Drum Score?

Before we jump straight in, let’s make sure your fundamentals are sound.

This is what a music score looks like:

sheet music
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are 3 main parts to it:

1 – The Stave

Just 5 equally spaced lines.

Not too intimidating right?

The stave (also known as the ‘staff’) is the base on which the musical notes rest.

It gives us a visual cue for the location of the musical note. This is way easier than trying to guess what pitch a note represents if its just floating on white paper.

The bar line at the end of the stave represents the end of that particular measure.

You can think of it as a cycle. When you read the bar line, its time to restart your count.

Speaking about counting, let’s talk about…

2 – The Time Signature

time signature

You would have come across video lessons or drum cover walkthroughs where the instructor counts “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and”.

There are many ways to count in music and every piece of music has it own ‘timing’.

Some even require different counting cycles at specific part of the songs.

Depending on the interpretation of the music piece, the timing can vary.

This can be recorded down in the drum score too, in the form of Time Signatures.

3 – The Notes

The protagonists on the drum score are the notes.

These beansprout lookalikes give you an idea of what to play and what comes next. We’ll dive deeper in the next section.

How to read Drum Score?

Now you know what makes up a drum score, let’s get into the meat.

There are 2 main parts to a drum score. You’ve read about them in the sections above:

  1. Time Signature
  2. Notes

1) Understanding Time Signature

First, you’ll have to interpret the timing of the drum score.

To do this, you’ll look at the time signature. Remember this?:

time signature 2 numbers mean

See the 2 numbers?

  • The top number refers to the number of beats you’ll be counting and,
  • the bottom number tells you the time value of each beat

The example above is the most common time signature in drumming; 4/4. (it is also known as ‘common time’). In 4/4 time, it simply means you count 4 beats and each beat is a quarter note.

It can take some time (and skill) to be able to immediately tell the timing of a music when you first hear it.

Hence, knowing how to interpret the time signature on a drum score will make things easier for you.

Here’s a quick video introduction to timing in drum music and time signatures:

To build up your familiarity with timing and your ability to count musically, you can refer to this book for chord exercises.

Odd Time Signatures

4/4 time is pretty easy.

But, the importance of learning to count starts to become significant when you encounter odd time signatures.

What are Odd Time Signatures?

Odd Time Signatures are time signatures beyond the common time (4/4) or the 3/4 time signatures.

These are not as commonly seen but hey, they exists. Some examples include time signatures like 5/8, 7/8, or even 21/16!

Here’s a great video lesson on Odd Time Signatures:

Bringing variety into your drums

With time signature alone, you can already start bringing interesting variety and musical depth to the music you play.

In songs performed by artists in public, it is also common to encounter several changes in time signatures throughout a single song.

Or, if you want to take it further, listen to how Gene Krupa make drums the key focus of his performances:

2) How to Read Drum Notations?

Also referred to as drum notes.

Unlike other musical instruments where the location of the musical notes on the stave represents a pitch, drum notes seem to tell us roughly which drum we should be playing.

You’d notice that the drums played with your hand (using the drumsticks), would be located higher on the stave. Comparatively, the notes played with your feet (using drum pedals) would be located lower on the stave.

I think we drummers have it easy because the drum notes (almost) corresponds with the location the drum that they represent:

drum score and kit

These are the basic drum notes you’ll find on the drum score, especially if you are a beginner.

Of course, over time you might expand your drum kit, and there would be more notes.

This is a comprehensive set of drum notes:

drum noteation

Source: Drum Magazine


2.5) How to Read Music Symbols?

On top of noticing the location of the drum notes, you might have also noticed that the drum notes can appear in different forms.

These forms reflect the duration of the note. Here’s the key drum symbols that we use:

Half Note
Quarter Note
Sixteenth Note
Thirty second Note
Sixty fourth note

Why should I learn to read the drum score?

Learning to drum is a complex process. As new drummers, we’re trying to teach our body and minds to coordinate in a new way.

And that alone is difficult enough.

So, why do we have to torment ourselves with drum scores?!

There are many reasons.

I’ll list you just 3 key reasons that I hope will motivate (or at least convince) you to learn how to read drum scores.

1) It makes self-learning easier

If you are a go-getter and want to pick up the drums on your own, learning the drum score will open many doors for you.

Unlike being in a drum studio with an instructor, if you are learning to drum yourself, it’s difficult to get feedback.

Hence, many of the digital or online tutorials rely on drum scores to convey the music. They rely on the drum score to pinpoint what you should be playing, at what speed.

Plus, you’ll have to look at them when you are learning your drum rudiments as well.

You’d have to understand the drum score and how to count, in order to use these resources efficiently.

2) You can play any song, with the drum score

Imagine finding a catchy song that sounds awesome to drum to. You could turn on the music and try to play along with it, which usually ends up in frustration…for beginners.

Now imagine if you could get a transcribed drum score on the internet.

You now have everything you need to jam to that song with ease – from fundamental notes to drum components. (Yes! most times if it sounds weird when jamming to a new song, you’re usually playing on drums that are not tuned for it. Trying tightening or loosening your drum depending on the song.)

3) Makes it easier to play with a band

Although we are using slightly different music notations as compared to the guitarists, bassist or pianist, our understanding of time in music is the same.

Learning to count comes along with mastering how to read the drum score.

This is an essential skill if you want to play with a band. Heck, its an essential skill even if you are a closet drummer.

With the ability to count, you’ll be able to break down songs so that you too can play them.


I hope you have picked up the basics to reading drum score in this quick guide.

Drummingbasics can only give you the fundamentals, you’ll need to practice and even memorise in order to master reading drum scores as a skill.

Over to you now!

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