Drum Notation Guide drumkey

Measures & Bar Lines

Music is written on a music staff, which features five parallel horizontal lines. The first thing you’ll see written on the staff is the clef; the drum/percussion clef looks like a vertical rectangle and is used with non-pitched percussion instruments. With non-pitched percussion instruments like a drum set, notes written on different spaces and lines indicate that drum, bass drum, or cymbal. The staff is separated into individual measures (or bars) of music with thin vertical lines called bar lines. The number of beats in each measure is determined by the time signature.

Drum Notation Guide measures and bar lines


As we go from larger notes down the list to the smaller notes, the notes and rests are halved in length. If you want to divide a note into thirds, you’ll need to use a triplet. A quarter-note naturally divides into two eighths, but if you want to divide it into thirds, you need to use an eighth-note triplet. An eighth-note triplet is played 50 percent faster than normal eighth notes and would be equivalent to a twelfth-note (although there is no such note). An eighth-note triplet is written as three eighth-notes beamed together with a number three above them. Any of the three notes can be replaced with an eighth rest or two sixteenths, or any other division of an eighth-note allowing for more notational flexibility. Triplets are usually counted “1 & ah 2 & ah 3 & ah 4 & ah.” You can also divide a note into fifths (quintuplet), sixths (sextuplet), sevenths (septuplet), and so on.

Time Signatures

Time signatures are written like fractions. The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure. The bottom number indicates the size of the note that represents the duration of one beat. For example, in the time signature of 5/4, there are five beats in each measure and the quarter-note lasts for one beat. The time signature is written at the beginning of the piece of music and wherever there is a meter change. Since most music is in 4/4, the time signature is often abbreviated with a large letter “C,” indicating “common” time.

Dotted Notes & Rests

Sometimes you’ll see a note or a rest with a small dot written next to it. This indicates that the note will last 50 percent longer, or 1 1/2 times its normal length.

Note & Rest Values

Drum Notation Guide note and rest values

Notes and rests come in different lengths, which are written as fractions. For every size note, there is an equivalent size rest. The note and rest values include whole (1/1), half (1/2), quarter (1/4), eighth (1/8), sixteenth (1/16), and thirty-second (1/32). These fractions represent the sizes of the notes and rests. For example, two eighths fit in the space (or time) of one quarter, so eighth-notes are twice as fast as quarter-notes. These relationships define the lengths (and speeds) of the notes. Rhythms are written by using combinations of notes and rests, so it is important to memorize them to quickly identify and play rhythms. There are several different parts of a note: the notehead stem and flags or beams. Recognizing them will help you learn to identify notes.

Repeats & Counting Rhythms

Repeats & Counting Rhythms

The simplest way to figure out rhythms is to count them with the smallest note value you have to play. For most drum music, that means counting sixteenth-notes. In 4/4, sixteenth-notes are counted “1 e & ah 2 e & ah 3 e & ah 4 e & ah.” Since you are counting sixteenths, a sixteenth-note or rest will last for one count, an eighth-note/rest will last for two counts, a quarter-note/rest will last for four counts, a half-note/rest will last for eight, and a whole-note/rest will last for sixteen. Repeat signs are used to abbreviate a piece of music and minimize page turns. A few different types of repeat signs are shown in the example above.