This question is often asked by my pupils during drum lessons with me. I’ve been teaching drums for over 10 years now and in that time I have taught hundreds of pupils to read drum music notation. The question is whether they needed to learn how to read music and if so, why.
To answer this question you have to ask yourself another question – do you take your drumming seriously? If the answer to this second question is yes then learning to read drum music is going to get you to the next level.
Before I go into the reasons of why I think learning to read music is important I would like to point out that there are many successful and talented drummers in the world that never learnt to read drum music at all.
A very common example of a great drummer who can’t read is Dennis Chambers. This super talented musician has stated that he never learnt to read music but still became a very successful session/performing drummer. Of course this isn’t quite true though, he admits himself that he can read basic notation and has a good grasp of the fundamentals. Dennis’s point is that he’s not the best sight reader but given a piece of music he could work his way through it.
All the great drummers understand that if they want to perfect their craft they have to have an understanding of the structure of music. It’s like being able to speak English but never learning how to read or write it, it can get you so far but eventually your limits are going to become obvious and are going to hold you back.
The real reason for learning to read music is not because you have too but because it can’t help but make you better at what you do.
A drummer that doesn’t understand the structure of music could learn all their drum parts by ear, simply listening to it and then through repeated attempts try to replicate it. The better you become the easier this gets and serves many musicians well but it is a slow and inaccurate way of learning. That drummer might have learnt something new eventually using this process but at the end of the day they won’t fully understand what they have learnt, or indeed, what made it difficult to learn in the first place.
Learning how to read music isn’t as difficult as people think. It’s not a complicated language at all but just so happens to use notation that can look confusing and daunting. The Western music notation system we use is hundreds of years old and so has the appearance and terminology of being something dated and irrelevant.
The truth is that the music notation used by musicians and taught by me is a beautiful, elegant and wonderfully logical system. Learning how to read and write music takes a little time to perfect but once learnt is a powerful tool that empowers musicians to improve and master.
Let me start to explain in greater detail just why learning how to read and write music notation can help you become a better musician.
What is music? Know one can really explain in a few sentences what music really is. We know that for most people it is a very important part of their lives but it can’t be touched and felt in the physical sense. The music notation system is the best way we have of turning this ethereal art form into something physical or at least into something that can be seen with our eyes.
The turning of music into something that can be read, observed with our eyes and studied gives the musician multiple ways to understand and learn music. It is for this reason that a drummer who can read or understand the structure of rhythm is able to visualise the music and even comprehend it at a deeper level than a drummer that can not.
Before I turn into some sort of drumming hippy I think I’d better give you some more down to earth practical reasons for learning how to read music.
Say you were to come for a drum lesson with me and I wanted to teach you a new drum beat then I would have a choice in front of me. I could either play it around and around until you had memorised it (hoping you don’t forget it during the week) or I could write it down for you in music notation and you could read it from the page. You would be able to take it home and, in say three years time after forgetting it, be able to play the exercise/groove like you were given it yesterday.
Say that I wanted to teach you many grooves and ideas in one lesson, would you seriously expect yourself to memorise all these ideas? Ideas that you might not even be able to play yet? There is no simpler and quicker way of teaching music to someone than to have that person read it from the page. You are then as a musician able to hear it, see it and understand it.
This is the great power of music notation to be able to share musical ideas in a form that can be digested and visualised by the musician. You could spend the rest of your performing life trying to memorise and learn everything by ear (and that’s fine) but the ease at which something can be learnt and duplicated by understanding the actual structure of what your hearing can’t be overstated.
A lot of drummers learn songs from their favourite bands but will often get to sections in the music that they can’t get quite right. Something is going wrong that throws them off every time they try to replicate it. Having an understanding of the structure of rhythm, through the learning of music notation, might show the drummer that they were actually playing the wrong kind of note subdivision or that the notes they kept missing were not in the place they thought they were.
The problem with someone reading that last paragraph who also can’t read music is that it’s not going to make a lot of sense to them. The problem with not understanding something is that you don’t know what you don’t know! Pretty obvious really but until the big picture is drawn for you (and the written form of music is exactly that – drawn for you) you won’t understand the power of the written note and what it can do for you.
When I’m practising the drums at home on my own I will often come across an idea or groove that I want to perfect or develop. Because I am able to visualise the actual structure of what I’m playing I can not only aim to practice it precisely right but I can then develop the idea by adding notes, changing note subdivisions and at the same time be totally confident that I’m learning it correctly. Understanding music in the written form gives me the power to understand my own limits because I know, using the rules of written music notation, what is possible and what is musically and rhythmically incorrect.
I am able to appreciate talented musicians and spot untalented ones by seeing how they use the rules of music. I can tell when someone is simply playing something and hoping it works rather than playing something because they know it works. Written music gives you a set or rules and boundaries that you can choose to use to your advantage or ignore at your peril.
I might be making written music notation sound like it stifles and blocks musical creativity because of its ‘rules’ and ‘boundaries’. The best analogy I can think of for this is to do with what I mentioned earlier. The English language is beautifully adaptable and very diverse but it can be described and taught with sets of rules. Just because the language can be described with these rules does not mean that it can’t be creative. It’s the same with written music notation. In fact, to continue the analogy, most of the worlds great writers and speakers used and understood the written language at a high level. Unless you understand the rules of something you are using then you can make mistakes and not benefit from using the rules to your advantage.
Please don’t think that music notation is even nearly as complicated as learning a new language though; it certainly is not! I am constantly amazed at how the wondrous diversity and seemingly endless number of rhythmic and musical ideas can all be explained and written down using some basic number rules and a little common sense.
The whole point of this article was to hopefully try and explain to you how learning music notation can be so advantageous. It’s not essential to becoming a great musician but why would anyone, given the opportunity to learn, choose ignorance over a deeper understanding?
It can help you learn and understand music at a much higher level. It allows you visualise music helping you to internalise it. But more importantly, reading music allows you to know your own limits and what is possible on your instrument.
See the big picture; learn how to read music notation and I promise you won’t look back.