David Milwain on The Importance of Reading Music for Drummers

In Drum Tips, Drummer resources by Philip2 Comments

The Importance of Reading Music for Drummers

Rhythm and drumming has been a part of society dating back thousands of years. Something so primitive and natural is simply engrained in our being. We, the individual, need nothing but to harness the rhythm and express it.

When learning a new instrument, be it guitar, piano, drums or any other, the student has the option of learning to read the notation or playing solely by ear. Although learning by ear may be easiest or quickest for a beginner, I am a strong believer that learning to read the notation leads to a more holistic understanding of the instrument. Some music teachers focus solely on the basics of how to play; in my lessons I focus not only on the basics of drumming, but I also place emphasis on sight reading drum set and rhythmic notation along with proper counting and steady breathing techniques to make the student a more well-rounded drummer.

Throughout my years of teaching I have come to understand that being able to read drum set notation paves the way for enhanced productivity in drumming lessons and personal advancement with the instrument.

  • Understanding drum set notation can help the student control the count, increase muscle memory, and it can be instrumental in developing multi-limb independence.

Although drum set notation is not standardized, the beats and patterns that make up drumming music are still organized in a very manageable way. Using quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes and so on, any beat can be broken down into simple parts or sections. Being able to visualize the beats allows the student to see where the count is happening and control it better. Without being able to understand the count, it is much more difficult to play in time at a constant tempo.

  • Difficult tasks such as drumming are made easier by the body’s use of muscle memory.

Muscle memory assists drummers in playing complex patterns by relieving the brain of performing certain tasks. By freeing up space, focus can be placed on other actions. For example: any simple eighth note beat has a constant pattern on the hi-hat; if this steady pattern is committed to memory, the brain only has to focus on the bass and snare drum notes. Being able to read the beat rather than trying to remember it helps the student perform the same correct beat each time. The correct repetition of patterns is significant in building up this muscle memory.

As drum beats and patterns gain complexity they may require the use of more limbs, such as a hi-hat count or a left foot clavé.  Seeing beats written out allows the student to break the pattern down and focus on each note separately. After understanding how each note works on their own and in relation to one another they can once again be brought together. Through repetition the beat can be sped up to a reasonable tempo where multi-limb independence is improved. Without being able to read drum set notation complex rhythms may be more difficult to piece together coherently.

  • Taking the time to learn to read music right away will aid you in becoming a more advanced player, faster.

You will still come across sticking patterns that confuse you, but your knowledge of sight-reading will allow you to take baby steps through them. You will develop new limb independence and coordination to eventually master each and every pattern you may find. Lastly: so, you’ve decided you want to learn the drums and now you have my book (or any other) in front of you; how are you going to remember all the patterns, beats and exercises on your own, if you don’t learn to read it!

Start your reading now by trying to learn how to read and play this Sixteen Bar Pattern

About the Author

David Milwain is a young, energetic, professional drumming instructor and session artist with over fifteen years of experience on the drums. Currently residing in Kamloops, B.C., David focuses his energy on a diverse teaching schedule including private in-home drumming lessons, preschool rhythm classes and a one-of-a-kind music program for elementary school students. David’s drumming manual designed to assist new drummers; “David Milwain’s Drum Book”, is now available on-line and in select Long and McQuade music retailers. For more information check out davidmilwaindrumschool.com


  1. Our 5 and 6 year old boys are already reading music thanks to lessons with David.  We are amazed by what they are pulling off with rhythm and reading after just a few short months of weekly lessons.  Their overall confidence in music (and selves) has increased exponentially.  David's drum book is a MUST HAVE!

  2. Hello Drum Wizard,
    I am interested in making some acrylic drums, do all the same principles apply to acrylic as they do to wood shells?

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