How important is it to be able to read drum music?

Simon DringBlog

How important is it to be able to read drum music?How important is it to be able to read drum music? I have been reading (and writing) drum music for over 20 years now, and I have found this to be one of the most useful skills I have. However, there are plenty of successful drummers (and other musicians) out there who cannot read music, and they seen to have done OK for themselves. So why bother learning?


In whatever band you’re playing in, chances are there will be at least one member who can read music. They will occasionally use technical phrases to describe the song they are playing, such as

  • the Chorus is 8 bars long
  • the guitar riff ends on the 3rd semiquaver of beat 2
  • the diminished 4th here really underpins the augmented triad played by the keyboard

If we have at least a moderate understanding of music and it’s notation, then we will be able to communicate with him or her more effectively. The 3rd example may not be all the relevant to us as drummers, but understanding the first 2 will open up a while new world of possibilities.


When we find ourselves practising alone, or rehearsing with a band, we need to be able to recall what we have decided to play for different songs/parts of songs. Either we rely on our memory, or we write things down. My memory at least is not good enough to remember everything I play, and how each drum beat for each song goes, so some kind of notation is required. Being able to read and WRITE drum music, even in it’s most basic form, has proved an invaluable tool. Even if it is just a single bar of groove, or a particularly tricky 4 bar rhythm, once we write it down, we can revisit it later and make sure we play it correctly each time.

On a related note, I have written a post about how I write “cheat sheets” – find it here

New ideas

How important is it to be able to read drum music?Now and again I’ll come up with (what I think could be) a great groove, concept or coordination exercise. The challenge then is to play it and also remember it. Especially with coordination or independence exercises, the difficulty is that we need to visualise what parts of the body play when.

Yes, we can probably to a certain extent work these out by just playing and listening to the sound we produce, but if we notated the exercise fully, we could be sure we were doing it right, and much more easily break it down into smaller chunks and work on it. There would be a visual representation of what we were doing.

More work!

I know plenty of drummers who do not read or write drum music. Many of those are fantastic players, and are incredibly skilled on the drum kit. However, they may not get such a variety of playing opportunities such as musicals, productions, dep gigs, etc. Reading for these kind of gigs is a must.


So, how important is it to be able to read drum music? No, you do not HAVE to be able to read (or write) drum music to be a successful musician. However, there can only be advantages if you do have these skills, Yes, it can take some time to get to grips with note values, rests, time signatures and written performance directions, but knowing these (even on the most basic of levels) will definitely improve your playing, understanding and musicality.

If you want to be a session drummer or a “dep” drummer (someone who sits in for bands when their regular drummer cannot do the gig), reading is an essential skill. Same goes if you wish to play for musicals, shows, plays, etc. If you want to be a drummer in a regular band, being able to understand musical terminology, notate various parts and of course recall previously created rhythms, reading and writing music is a massive advantage.

A note about SIGHT READING:

Sight reading is playing music that you have not seen before. This is very different to working on a groove or whole song for weeks or months. I regularly play gigs where I do not see the notated drum parts until I am on stage, and then I have to play in sync to a backing track/click in front of hundreds of people. It is nerve wracking, but I must admit I really enjoy the challenge. I am comfortable enough with my sight reading abilities to say yes to these gigs when they come up. I’m certainly not the finest sight reader in the world (or even in my local area), but I try to keep my reading skills up. I find that after doing a few weeks of regular reading gigs, that my over all reading skills are better than they were at the start. Use it or lose it!