Drummers should listen to sight-reading wisdom  

By Tim Kane

Although my New Year’s resolution is to tighten up my timing and tempo control, drummers should also strive to learn how to sight-read musical charts, even though most will never use that skill live.

Luckily, I was taught to sight-read musical notation live as a young student in grammar school when I played trombone. That early Bass clef knowledge carried over to drums and continued on straight through my college jazz band years. But not everyone is a schooled musician, or even wants to be. The fact is drummers really don’t need to sight-read in most musical settings today, unlike wind, string, piano and brass musicians. After my college band experiences ended, I did not read a single note for more than a decade. I played everything by ear.

My point is not so much having to learn to sight read in order to play in a successful band – unless of course you plan to enter the music industry professionally and attend college where sight reading is a pre-requisite. For most part-time and hobbyist drummers out there – and many full-timers, too – you probably will never be asked to read a chart or define how a 5/4 time signature breaks down.

I stress with my own students that learning how to sight read has a lot more to do with opening up new avenues of musical expression across the entire drum set; discovering cool new rhythms and patterns you would never have played without sight reading them first; and providing yourself with an instant framework to focus yourself during practice. In my opinion, learning to sight-read is as important as playing along to your favorite bands and songs or performing live with other musicians. Your ears and eyes are intrinsically connected.


The easiest and best way to learn to sight read, if you don’t want to go out and hire a private drum instructor, is to buy a good music theory and composition book or CD, and definitely check out national drum magazines such as DRUM! and Modern Drummer. Those publications always carry great how-to-read exercises and notation breakdowns in each edition.

Once you understand note and rest values and the mechanics of how they apply to measures, time, dynamics and all of your drum and cymbal “instruments”, the best way to master them is to use your ears. Take several of your favorite recordings and transcribe the drum parts for them on music staff paper (manuscript). Then, ask a musician friend who can sight-read well to grade them. Try to work drum chart transcription – or at least live sight reading – into your regular practice regimen. And if you get stuck when reading music, slow it down to a tempo that’s more manageable or seek help in an online drum forum.

And if more advanced chart reading skills just aren’t in your future, consider simply learning the meaning of quarter, eighth, sixteenth and 32nd notes, counting measures in time, and the basics of song composition with regard to verse, bridge, and chorus construction. If you can even just talk music theory lingo a bit, it improves your opportunities as a drummer not only from a performance perspective, but also in terms of being able to offer meaningful feedback and ideas to other musicians about their arrangements and original compositions.

Remember, it’s rare today for a rock band leader to hand you a drum chart at a gig or practice and ask you to sight read it verbatim. Beyond being prepared for something that rarely occurs for drummers outside of recording studios or at more intricate jazz and concert band gigs, learning to sight-read just makes you a more complete and smarter drummer. Happy New Year!

Tim Kane is a professional drummer, instructor and writer living in Massachusetts. http://www.kanedrums.com