Learning to read rhythms can open a whole new world of musical opportunities. It can facilitate growth as you learn from the countless educational resources that are available today. And it can equip you with more options as a working player, no matter what your level.

Imagine being in a rehearsal and coming up with a perfect groove or fill for a song, and wanting to remember it for your next rehearsal. While capturing it on a portable recorder is one option, what if you didn’t have one with you? Being able to write the part down in detail on any available sheet of paper would be a powerful skill to have in that moment. Or imagine being called to sub for a gig with only six hours’ notice. Having the skill to quickly jot down crucial parts—or sight-read a provided chart at the gig—could alleviate having to quickly absorb so much musical content by ear. These are merely two examples of the many advantages gained from being able to read music.

It’s never too late to start learning and enjoying the benefits of reading rhythms—no matter how long you’ve been playing. In this series, we’ll start with the fundamentals of reading rhythms and develop the skills to take our notation from one drum to the entire drumset. Go slowly with this material, and keep in mind that certain definitions and concepts will become clearer the further along you progress. Let’s get started!

Anatomy of the Staff

All music is notated on a staff. Although some snare drum music is written on a single-line staff, drumset music is typically written on a standard staff with five lines, as shown here.

The drumset staff typically includes a clef, a time signature, measures, and barlines. In musical notation, the clef is used to indicate the range of pitched or nonpitched notes for a given instrument. Since the drumset is a nonpitched instrument—meaning that we typically don’t play melodic notes on a scale—we use the neutral clef, which is also known as the percussion clef.

The time signature is placed after the clef at the start of a piece of music and defines that music’s meter or pulse. In the examples in this guide, we’ll be using a “4/4” time signature, which has four quarter-note beats per measure. This will be explained further when we start covering notes and rests.

Barlines are used to divide the staff into individual measures, as notated below. In musical notation, a measure is a division that’s defined by the time signature. Again, this will be explained further as we explore notes and rests.

You’ll also typically see forward and backward repeat signs in music notation; they prompt you to repeat a given section. When encountering a backward repeat sign at the end of a measure, you’ll go back to the preceding forward repeat sign and repeat the section once, then continue onward with the piece.

Notes and Rests

Music notation uses a series of symbols that tell you when to play and for how long, as well as when not to play and for how long. We call these symbols notes and rests, respectively. Notes and rests last for a set amount of beats, which are divisions of time within a measure.

We’ll use the following series of note and rest durations in the majority of this introductory guide.

Notation That We Play

A whole note is held for four beats. In a 4/4 time signature, a whole note lasts for an entire measure, and is notated as follows.

A half note is held for two beats. In a 4/4 time signature, two consecutive half notes last for one measure.

A quarter note is held for one beat. In a measure of 4/4, four quarter notes fit within one measure.

An 8th note is held for half of the duration of a quarter note. Eight 8th notes can be played within one measure of 4/4.

A 16th note is held for one half of an 8th note’s duration. Sixteen 16th notes can be played within a measure of 4/4.

A Visual Comparison

Notation That We Don’t Play

Remember: While notes tell us when to play and for how long, rests tell us when not to play and for how long to remain silent. The following demonstrates how rests are notated.

A whole-note rest is held for four beats. When reading a whole-note rest in a measure of 4/4, you would remain silent for the entire measure.

A half-note rest is held for half the duration of a whole-note rest. In a measure of 4/4, a half-note rest tells us to remain silent for two beats.

A quarter-note rest is held for one beat, or half of the duration of a half-note rest.

An 8th-note rest is held for one half of a quarter-note rest.

And a 16th-note rest is held for one half of an 8th-note rest.

In the previous examples, each type of note or rest lasts exactly half as long as the preceding type that was demonstrated. For instance, two half notes last the same amount of time as one whole note. Likewise, two quarter-note rests last the same amount of time as one half-note rest, and so on.

A Visual Comparison

Putting It All Together

Returning to our full staff, let’s take another look at the time signature. The top number tells us how many beats, or pulses, are in a measure, while the bottom number tells us what type of note duration (division) takes up the value of one individual beat. (Although that may sound a bit confusing at first, it’ll begin to make more sense as we progress through the series.) In a 4/4 time signature, the top number tells us that there are four beats (pulses) in each measure, and the bottom number tells us that a quarter note takes up the space of one beat. Here’s an example of two measures of 4/4 time.


Before moving on to Part 2 of this guide, be sure you have a firm grasp of the following concepts.

1. Be able to identify the anatomy of musical notation: staff, clef, time signature, barline, and repeat sign.

2. Be able to identify the most common notes and rests: whole note, half note, quarter note, 8th note, 16th note, whole-note rest, half-note rest, quarter-note rest, 8th-note rest, and 16th-note rest.

3. Understand what the time signature is and what the top and bottom numbers signify.

Next time we’ll start reading whole-, half-, and quarter-note notation.

Printable Flashcards for Practice

Click here to print sheet 1

Click here to print sheet 2