How To Write Drum Set Notation

How to Write Drum Set Music Notation

Knowing how to write drum notation gives you an advantage as a student and a performer. You will often find it useful to write a drum rhythm or fill that you want to remember.

Write Drum Music - Notes

The note head shown above is a note ball. It is not a perfect circle; it’s slightly oval. This is what notes normally look like.


Drum notation is unique because it uses note-head symbols in addition to the regular note ball. The most common are “X” note heads which are used for cymbals. Other note heads are diamonds, triangles, and slashes.

Other Note Heads

Write Drum Music - Note Heads

Drum notation is also unique because the lines and spaces of the staff do not represent pitches; they represent drums. This is indicated by using a neutral clef, also called a percussion clef.

Neutral ClefWrite Drum Music - Clef for Drums

The most common clefs used in non-drum music are the treble clef and bass clef.

clef treble
clef bass
See Clef on Wikipedia for a great article.
When you use a neutral clef, the lines and spaces of the staff do not represent specific pitches. To show which line or space designates which drum or cymbal, use a legend, like this:
Drum LegendDrum Legend Notation for 5 Piece Drum SetDon’t include instruments in the legend that are not used. If your drum set has three tom-toms, but you only play two of them, include only two toms in the legend.When creating a drum legend, try to assign the instruments to lines or spaces that will make the drum music easy to read.

In the music examples below, it’s easy to tell the difference between bass drum and snare drum because they are not on adjacent lines of the staff.

An alternative to a Legend is to identify the instruments at the beginning of the music, like this:

Write Drum Set Music - Staff

Or use a three-line staff if only three instruments are needed.

Write Drum Set Music - Staff 3 Lines

Or use a one-line staff if only one instrument is needed.

Write Drum Set Music - Staff 1 Line


There is no standard drum set legend, but here are some general guidelines.

  • Cymbals usually go near the top line, except Hi-Hat when played with the foot, which usually goes below the bottom line.

Write Drum Set Music - Hi-Hat Foot Pedal

  • Bass drum usually goes on the bottom space.
  • Snare drum usually goes on the third space from bottom.
  • Tom-toms usually go on lines or spaces in order of their size.

This Drum Legend from above is common for a 5-piece drum set.

Drum Legend Notation for 5 Piece Drum Set


HiHats and cymbals can have additional notations.

HiHat and Cymbal Notations


When I write drum parts, I often use slashes instead of note balls to make writing faster. I don’t always draw staff lines or time signatures.

Write Drum Set Music – Staff


When writing drum set rhythms without a staff, I’ll put a ledger line through the snare drum note to make it easy to identify.

Write Drum Set Music - No Staff


Make notes for yourself when it’s unclear which drums should be used.

Write Drum Set Music - Notes


When writing notation for someone else to read, the most important thing is to make it clearly understood what is to be played. If needed include notes about:

  • Time Signatures
  • Dynamics
  • Tempo

The best way to become good at writing drum notation is to do it. A good way to begin is to try writing the notation from any page in your drum lesson books. Later, you’ll be able to listen to a song and write out the drum part the drummer is playing. You can use regular lined notebook paper if you don’t have staff paper. You can also easily find staff paper online to print off.

Drum Notation Help