Play Drums by Ear, or Learn to Read Music?

Well, that’s the question, and a point could be made for both. However, as a lifelong musician, I’ve witnessed both and seen a pattern emerge.

If you’ve spent years hunched over a music-stand learning the craft of reading music, you will be biased to what many consider a more classical approach. But it’s a misconception that reading music is relegated to classical music, as the industry is full of jazz players, studios musicians, and mainstream working players that have chart-reading in their skillset.

And Play-By-Ear guys? It’s a great skill, and can be developed with experience.

While you don’t want to be the one band-member at rehearsal who can’t play the tune without a chart, there is a middle ground that answers the question, and has worked well for my professional drumming career.

Too many drummers fail to learn the art & science, of reading music. As a working drummer myself, I’ve found it invaluable. As a drum teacher, I feel I can cut years off the learning curve when I spend time teaching chart-reading.

It’s like general literacy. Yes, you can get through life without knowing how to read books, but your world would be a lot smaller, and progress would be slow.

There are different types of drum charts, and each has it place in the industry. For classical music, scores are to be played note-by-note without improvisation. For modern gigs & session drumming, there is a short-hand “cheat sheet” that many of us have developed. It’s a quick and dirty way to pull off a tune quickly without having to memorize every note.

Here’s an example of a quick, “Cheat Sheet”. It’s pretty nasty looking scrawls, but gets the job done when the goal is to learn a song quickly.

drum chart cheat sheet

And here’s an example of more traditional, details, drum chart.




There’s a time and place for each of these notation types, but without having reading chops, your drumming career will be limited. And, it’s a great tool for learning rudiments, grooves, and fills.

So, if you want to Play on… Read on!

Happy drumming,