Experience Drums

Experience Drums... Music... Life!

evan pollack

Reading Rhythm—Part 1

A Series of Articles Designed to Take the Fear
Out of Reading Drum Music

By Evan Pollack

The Big Four Definitions

When you’re a drum teacher, you tend to keep a mental catalogue of looks that appear on the faces of your students: the look of a student who has just enjoyed a lesson with you. The look of a student who has just played his brand new drum set for the first time. And of course, the look of sheer horror of a student who has been told that today is the day that he is going to start to read drum music.

The truth is that reading rhythm is not hard. Yes, the language of music has a lot of dots, squiggles and lines that go in different directions. However, breaking through those symbols will become a piece of cake if we simply edit the information in nice, bite-sized pieces that will give you just what you need, right when you need it.

So let’s start this lesson on learning how to read rhythm with some definitions of musical terms. We’ll call them The Big Four. These definitions do much more than just tell us what the pictures mean. They will provide us with the necessary organization that will help us make sense of the printed music page.

The Big Four

I. The Staff—The staff is no big deal It’s just a place to put notes. It has five lines and 4 spaces.

II. Notes—When people try to describe notes they usually say something like this: A note is...you know...a note!

Try this description on for size:

A note is a picture of sound that rings out for a length of time.

This picture of sound is put on the staff; and it’s at this point that we want to consider the placement and shape of the note.

The placement of the note on the staff tells us if that note is a high- or low-pitched sound. For example, if a drummer plays a high-pitched sound like one from a crash cymbal, the note appears high on the staff. If the drummer plays a low-pitched sound, like one from a bass drum, the note appears low on the staff.

The following is a typical drum key that demonstrates where the pieces of a drum set would appear on the staff.

The shape of the note tells us how long the note will ring out.

Here are some typical note shapes:

Please note (pun intended) that the notes all look a little different. That’s because the shape of the notes tells us that they all ring out a little differently. Some notes ring out for long periods like the whole note. Some ring for a short period of time like a sixteenth note.

Today we are just concentrating on the definitions. We will learn how to count notes in our next article.

III. Measures (Bars)—We divide up notes into easy-to-read phrases using boxes that we call measures or bars. The vertical lines that separate each measure are called bar lines. Without those lines, we would have a hard time figuring out where phrases start and end. If you see a double bar line at the end of a line of music, it indicates one of two things: either you are at the end of a section of music or you are at the end of the entire musical piece.

IV. The Time Signature—Okay, this is the tough one to understand if too much is thrown at you at once, so we’ll do it step by step.

A time signature is like a trailer of a movie that comes on before the main feature. You see the trailer and find out six months before the movie’s release date that it’s a comedy or a horror show or an adventure flick.

A time signature is kind of like that. Experienced musicians look to this part of the music first to figure out if the music will be really easy to play or if it will be a complicated progressive rock tune. The time signature gives that information away.

A time signature is not a fraction. It’s just two numbers, one above the other. The top number tells us how many counts are in a measure. The bottom number is a code name for the type of note that gets one count.

Now, I know that this time signature might still seem a little alien to you. This is because a time signature has to be felt. We can analyze it all we want, but the music that it’s assigned to has to be played if we are to understand it. And so far...we haven’t played anything. For today, don’t worry about the numbers. Just concentrate on the definitions. We will build on these and the understanding will come naturally.

Hey, I can see you’re still worrying about the time signature. Why don’t I give you one little formula to memorize that will help you make a little more sense of what the numbers in the time signature mean.

If there is a four on top of the time signature, we count up to four in each measure. If there is a four on the bottom of the time signature, the four is a code name for the type of note known as a quarter note. Every time we see a quarter note, we’re going to count one, two, three or four.

Putting It All Together

Let’s stack all the definitions together and see how they organize the page of music.

  • A staff is a place to put notes.
  • Notes are pictures of sound that ring out for a specific length of time. If the notes sit high on the staff, we are talking about high-pitched sounds. If they sit low on the staff, we’re talking about low-pitched sounds.
  • We group the notes into easy-to-read phrases using measures or bars.
  • And last but not least, we preview how the music is going to feel (even before playing it) by looking at the time signature. The top number tells us what to count up to in every measure. The bottom number is a code name for the type of note that gets one count.

Here is a section of music that is written with no bar lines or time signature.

Wow! There are no phrases that we can clearly see. It’s like a string of words with no capital letters or punctuation marks.

Now see how the same section looks when we add the measures and the time signature. You still may not know how to count the music. But you can clearly see the organization.


There is one more definition I would like to throw at you. (I know, I said there would only be The Big Four but I think you can handle one more!) At the beginning of every piece of music, there is musical icon known as a clef. It is specifically used to tell us where certain pitches or musical tones are on the staff.

Here are the most common clefs that you will run into:

The treble clef will help us find pitches (notes that we can sing and recognize as part of the melody of a song) on the staff for instruments like guitar, flute, and trumpet.

The bass clef will help us find pitches on the staff for instruments that handle the lower range of notes like bass guitar, trombone, and the low-pitched notes covered by the left hand on the piano.

Some drum set books use the bass clef to help us remember that our parts often have something to do with the bass player.

However, another common clef that drum books will use is the generic clef. This designates that no specific pitch is required – we don’t have to worry about playing the pitch of A, D or G on our drums. We just have to consider which drum we’re playing and as mentioned before, that’s covered by where that note falls on the staff.

So There You Have It

Reading. Its a language. It’s a process. Get comfortable with the images and definitions mentioned in this article and I assure you that you will become organized and this will truly help you add more information to your noggin.

Special Note of Thanks to Leland Nakamura for scoring the music examples.