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Reading music is often seen as an intimidating venture, especially for drummers. As drums are not a pitch specific instrument, many drummers wonder if reading music is a useful skill.
While it is certainly possible to be a great drummer without the ability to read music, it is an invaluable skill, and absolutely necessary if you have any desire to be a working musician. Reading music helps you become a total musician and more than “just another drummer.” It helps you to become an adaptable player that can work in a variety of different situations.
Why Should a Drummer Learn to Read Sheet Music?
In my experience, there are four primary reasons why a drummer should learn to read sheet music:
This is the primary reason why reading is such a valuable skill. Sometimes you’ll get a call for a gig that’s the same day, and there’s no time to rehearse. Sometimes a bandmate will bring in a tune they’ve just finished, and the first time you see it is on the bandstand.
Sometimes people will call a standard you’ve never even heard. All of these are common occurrences as a working musician. Reading is a skill that allows us to deal with the unfamiliar but still make convincing music in the moment.
2. LEARN MUSIC QUICKLY
Reading music allows you to learn it faster. In chapter 8 of the book Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance, authors of the chapter Sam Thompson and Andreas C. Lehman speak of the cognitive process of sight-reading music. It is a process that involves not only our sense of hearing, but our sense of sight.
They emphasize pattern recognition, as rhythmic and melodic patterns store as a singular unit in one’s memory. Recognizing these patterns and forms allows us to process music more quickly, as our brains relate what we see on sheet music to what we’ve already learned
Once I was asked to sub for a friend’s GB band that plays a lot of pop and rock music. The setlist was around 40-50 songs, and I had about 2 weeks to learn the music. My friend was kind enough to give me charts of the song forms he had made. Without those charts, I would not have been able to learn those songs so quickly and get through the gig.
3. FORM AWARENESS
Reading helps with form awareness. To be able to read song forms and visualize them in some capacity is invaluable, and makes your comping and soloing much more informed. To understand a song form is to understand the places where the tune resolves, be it harmonically or melodically. Understanding the rhythms of a melody also helps you to structure complementary phrases.
This is also important to realize as a soloist. The form gives you a critical framework to work off when soloing. Reading allows you to be aware of the form if you don’t know the tune by heart.
One time, I was playing a session with a bassist and pianist. They called a tune I didn’t know, and I decided just to wing it during my solo. The bassist later complained to the pianist that I wasn’t playing the form. Now, I will often pull up a tune on iReal Pro If I don’t know it, so that way I can always be aware of the form.
Reading is also essential to studying music. The ability to read music is the ability to use the treasure trove of musical resources. There is a myriad of great drum books, such as Ted Reed’s Syncopation, George Lawerence Stone’s Stick Control, and more modern books such as John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming.
Another important part of being a student is being able to visualize rhythms. My teacher in college, Chris Poudrier, would always tell me, “you need to be able to sing the rhythm, see the rhythm, and count it too.” This approach creates a holistic understanding of rhythm.
Without the frame of reference for reading, you cannot visualize rhythms. Reading is useful too, as you can see how limbs are supposed to line up when playing more complicated patterns involving multiple limbs.
CAN YOU BE A GOOD DRUMMER WITHOUT LEARNING HOW TO READ MUSIC?
While reading music is an important skill, you can be a good or even great drummer without the ability to read sheet music. Music is an aural art form, after all. To really be a great musician, one needs to have great ears and instincts. Many great musicians never learned how to read sheet music, including Jimi Hendrix.
When I was in high school, I had that attitude towards learning how to read music. My music teacher at the time recommended I join his theory course at the school, and I responded along the lines of “If Hendrix didn’t need to learn how to read music, then neither did I!” My teacher very simply stated, “Well, you’re not Jimi Hendrix.”
That was a powerful lesson for me. None of us are Jimi Hendrix, or any myriad of countless musicians who have revolutionized music. There’s not any point in restricting ourselves based upon the restrictions of our idols. We are all products of the time we live in, and we should study and build upon what has come before us rather than altogether rejecting it.
I’ve often heard the argument that the more educated you are about music, the less “magic” or unknown there is. I’ve always found this attitude to be fundamentally flawed. Coming from a well-informed place only enhances the enjoyment of music. The ability to read music is not going to “ruin” the joy of music-making. At worst, it won’t change anything, and at best It’ll help you deepen your relationship with music.
The other reality is that the more you study and learn, the more you realize how little you actually know in the grand scope of things. Being a musician is a lifelong practice, something you will be a student of until the day you die. There’s always an element of the unknown, a mysticism that never fades, no matter how much you’ve studied.
While it is certainly possible to be a great drummer without learning how to read sheet music, it is a lot harder to be a great musician without being able to read in some capacity. Reading is one of those skills that takes you beyond the instrument, and helps you become a complete musician.
CAN ROCK DRUMMERS BENEFIT FROM READING MUSIC?
Reading music is beneficial for all types of drummers; it doesn’t matter the genre. From rock to hip-hop, anyone can gain something from reading. In fact, Mike Mangini of Dreamtheater used to teach a grid system of charting songs in his rock drumming styles lab at Berklee. It’s a great system to chart songs for long sets of 30-40 songs quickly. Friends of mine have shown me this method, and it works well for GB gigs. You can see a version of this system:
In my own experience, I’ve used my reading abilities more on pop and rock gigs than I have on jazz gigs. On jazz gigs, I try to memorize the music so I can be more focused on interacting with the other musicians. On pop gigs, I often have to learn large amounts of music in a short amount of time, so reading helps bridge that gap.
Another example of how reading (and writing music) is helpful in a rock context is this vlog from drummer JP Bouvet. In this video, he’s doing a recording session for a videogame soundtrack in a rock style. He talks a bit about charting music and drum parts. You can check it out here:
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO LEARN HOW TO READ MUSIC AS A DRUMMER?
Now that we’ve established the usefulness of reading music, the question is, how do we learn to read music? I’ve found that there are four practical ways to learn how to read.
Finding a great teacher or taking a basic music theory or piano course is an effective, if a perhaps obvious way to learn how to read music. A great teacher can clearly and effectively show you the standard methods of learning how to read music, and can adapt their methods based on your own personal needs. Teachers can point you in the right direction, giving you a more direct pathway than studying on your own.
Reading is a skill, and like any musical skill, it can be developed through practice. When I practice sight-reading, I like to take simpler pieces and play through them at a readable tempo. What’s important when practicing sight-reading is to don’t stop when you mess up, as when you’re reading on a gig, you have to keep going. Another useful tip a teacher of mine taught me is to always look at a measure ahead of what you’re currently playing. She would cover the measure we were playing to force us to look ahead. This study also confirmed that better sight-readers look ahead in notation when sight-reading.
Listen to music with a lead sheet or score:
It’s also a useful practice to listen to music while reading the lead sheet or score in front of you. I find this very helpful when I’m trying to learn tunes quickly, as it builds that auditory/optical connection discussed earlier and helps to cement a song in my head.
Feel the music in larger beat quantities:
One of the issues you can run into with reading music on a gig is being too focused on the minutiae of a tune, and missing the larger form and phrase structures. I find a useful remedy to this is to feel the beat in larger quantities. I like to feel in half notes, as this helps me think in larger phrases. To practice this, I’ll use the metronome with only beats one and three accented.
John Dalton is a Boston based drummer, composer, bandleader, and educator. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He performs regularly as both a leader and a sideman. His modular ensemble “Spheres of Influence” has recently released their debut album, Indigo Skyline. You can find out more about him here : https://johndaltonspheresofinfluence.com