Following on from the previous post about “punctuation” in drumming, this article takes a step back to look at the bigger picture of “how to read drum music”.

First a bit of fun:

Read the following sentences (read through quickly without paying much attention to detail, and then read again more slowly)…

Aoccdrnig to rseearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Ok, I’m sure you’ve seen this “jumbled text research” before. It did the rounds on the internet a few years ago and sometimes resurfaces in your email inbox every so often. Regardless how “genuine” the source of this research, the text makes an interesting point about the way our brains recognise written words.

Written musical notation can be thought of as another language. So, it follows that we should be able to recognise written music in a similar way to the way we interpret written text.

When you are familiar with reading common words you no longer fully “read” the words – you just recognise the general shape (as shown by the sentences in the example above).

How does this relate to music notation?

Let’s examine language as we know it.

At the smallest level there are letters. Letters a grouped together to form words. Words make up sentences. Punctuation helps give structure and meaning to sentences, and in the end we get paragraphs or phrases of multiple sentences.

Drum notation is a series of dots or markings on the music stave. Each marking indicates which drum or cymbal you are to play. These are the equivalent to the letters of normal language.

Here are the most common drums notated on the stave:Notation for kick, snare and toms

And here are the cymbals (cymbals are indicated by an x for their heads rather than dots).Notation for ride, hi hat and crash cymbals

Next, the sequence of the markings on the stave (the “letters”) give us the “words” of drum music (a short rhythmic grouping).

Basic rock groove notation example

You are probably already familiar with the following drum groove. It is a basic rock groove. Look at the shape of the rhythmic grouping (the group of notes joined by the beam at the top).

When you become familiar with a drum groove you no longer need to read every single “letter” of each “word”, just like in normal written language. You can instantly recognise the shape of the “word” at first glance and read it straight away.

It takes time…

The process of becoming familiar with the different “words” in drum music is much the same process as learning to read normal language for the first time. You need to analyse the construction of each word methodically and relate it to the sound you hear. It is a process which does not happen by itself overnight – it takes a few months of working at it. And then it takes years of playing to increase your drumming vocabulary of words. The process can be sped up by having some drum lessons with a great drum teacher. Your teacher can help you understand the construction of the drum “words” and familiarise you with the way each word should sound.