Learning Drum Music

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Drum Rhythms!

Drum rhythms can come to you in many ways!  Rhythms can come on their own in a 4 count, 8 count etc. or rhythms can come in a layered group of polyrythms making up an ensemble. Traditionally, drum music is just played and not written, it is heard and felt and danced to. To help you learn drum music; you can sing with drum music, you can communicate your passion or purpose with the drum and you learn the rhythms.  Since drumming has become so popular it is now being taught all over the world and is done so in many ways; traditionally – aural, with songs and jingles, with hand patterns – traditional or modern, musical notation on a stave, in counted measures, or in box notes.

Drum Teachers

What’s the intent? Are you comfortable working together? Do your learning styles match? It’s important to know your drum teacher’s teachers, the background they have and where the resources come from.  Are you learning and having fun? Great!

Drum Music Notes

The purpose of having written notes is so you can interpret and play the original drum music accurately and it can be passed on and stay as it was originally intended. It is important to represent the cultural rhythm as it is meant to be shared and to respect the work done by the artist behind the rhythm or ensemble.

There are no rules about sticking to rhythms the way they are when you are jammin, it’s called artistic license.  But, it’s important to give credit where it’s due historically and artistically and then just have fun and let the drum and your body guide you.  If you’re calling a certain rhythm a certain cultural name then please do your research and make sure that root rhythm is there.


  • Calls: to start, 1,2,3,4,  to close  4,3,2,1
  • (or some groups do the same as to start)
  • Starting place: On the one  – is where you start, on the pick up – is before the one
  • Call/Response: leaders model, others then echo the model back or give 2nd part
  • Breaks: a dynamic rhythm that says hey something is coming up, wake up, watch me, be ready, this is cool!
  • Intro and Endings: a universal break rhythm or a special rhythm is used to signal start and endings
  • Universal Break: a call to signal something to the group, this break rhythm is known all around the world. Some groups sing in their heads….This is our universal break…..OR  This is our u ni ver sal song!  There are 8 beats in that break.
  • x1 means play the four count line once, x4 means play the rhythm line 4 times
  • 1st line Ext. means the frist bar is extended by one beat, play a HA!, one impact on bass at the end of the rhythm part
  • Polyrhythms: rhythms layer with each other, Drum 1, Drum 2, Drum 3 etc.
  • Ensembles: An ensemble is the way a piece of music or song is played, the dynamics, drum parts, types of drum, percussion or rhythm instrument parts, vocals etc.  Ensembles or songs have introductions, breaks, and endings, and single or layered rhythms in an arrangement, rhythms vary by culture and by place.
  • Time Signature:  A numerical sign (looks like a fraction) placed on a stave (staff) to show the meter; the numerator is the number of beats per bar, the denominator represents the value of each beat and how long each beat lasts
  • 4/4 time: 4 quarter notes fit into a 4 count, which is usually one rhythm line in drumming, it feels like a march, inside each quarter note you can feel 4 more counts, one ee and ah etc., like a tone walk rhythm or two walking rhythms
  • 6/8 time: bit faster, (123, 123 or 123456) it is still a 4 count per drum line, each pulse feels three like a waltz, one and ah etc.,  “dance with me” – sometimes known as the mother rhythm
  • Beat / Pulse: constant push or pulse, doesn’t change
  • Tempo: the speed of the beat, this may change for dynamics as directed
  • Rhythm: what you sing, pats inside the pulse,  a sketch of the lyrics
  • Sketch: play part of the rhythm learned, leave some space, this may be an accent
  • Pitch: tone of the drum, placement of the hand on the rim, bass, or slap connection on the rim, you can have parts to an ensemble with a low drum, middle drum, high drum, accent drum
  • Accent: leader plays splashy parts for accent on top of other drum rhythms
  • Flam: two hands coming down almost together on tone, it is louder, has emphasis
  • Dynamics:  bring in interest using elements of music, change in volume, and change in instrument sound, bring in new percussion instruments – bell, shaker, sticks, take out instruments, change the tempo, have solos, stops and starts, echoes, etc.
  • Endings: 1st line extended means impact after end of 4 count, Ending Bass or Tone?
  •  Uh! means regular emphasis as a stop and Yes! extra power
  • Downbeat: The push of the count, where your heel or toe is tapping the 1,2,3,4, count
  • Upbeat: the lift of the knee in the count, the between the number space! Percussion with rhythm instruments sounds good in the space.


 Djembe Music – African Drumming  

  • A djembe or jembe is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet shaped drum played with bare hands, originally fromWest Africa.
  • DJEMBE  – (Jem Bay) According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying “Anke djé, anke bé” which translates to “everyone gather together in peace” and defines the drum’s purpose. In the Bambara language,  “djé” is the verb for “gather” and “bé” translates as “peace.”
  • The Djembe (drum) originated in Africa: the drumbeat of the Djembe in Africa is heard every day for communication, celebration, healing, ceremony, rites of passage, harvest parties, weddings, seasons, and fun. The Djembe originates from West Africa in countries like Mali, Guinea and Senegal.  The word Djembe is the name of a tree with very dense wood. The word ‘be’ means goat, which is the skin, used on top of the drum.
  • Djembes: are made in all parts of the world and are from many types of wood and even from synthetic materials. Djembes are widely used as they are an accessible, affordable instrument.  They are a goblet shaped drum; they come in a variety of sizes and are traditionally made of a hard wood (mahogany) and goatskin. Drums are used to celebrate life, they are the heartbeat, the pulse of life!
  • Learning Drum Music: it usually taught just by modeling, no notes, no writing, watch, listen, play, sing, feel, practice!
  • Variations of Music: different countries in Africa and around the world play rhythms a little differently or they are arranged differently, things vary because of history, culture, and the origin of the composer, and the names of the ensemble my be similar or different as well
  • Ensemble Names and Rhythm Names: these vary as well, don’t sweat these things being different, and don’t sweat trying to find a recipe for an ensemble name, master the root rhythm, try some things that work with it, a lot of drummers don’t have names for each rhythm, it may just be Drum I, Drum II etc, master the root rhythm, arrange an ensemble so it works for your group.
  • Honoring the Rhythms and the Artist: Rhythms & Ensembles are created for dancers, celebrations, and ceremony. It’s important to honour the story of the song, the artist behind the rhythm, the people/country of origin, and the story the hands tell on the drum. It’s important to have an original rhythm stay true and played accurately so the honouring of that song, ensemble, rhythm and the artist is there. It’s important to give credit and thanks to your teachers / resources when you play.
  • Artistic License: We are all creators of rhythm. Create your own music, embellish rhythms you know and make it your own. When you are using a rhythm made up by others, taught by others, shared by others – then give that credit to them.
  • North American Djembe Music: sometimes recorded in musical notation, sometimes recorded in box notes, sometimes recorded just with the hand patterns and jingles, usually no resources at all!, a mp3 recorder and a pen and paper help!
  • Jingles: are the songs or rhythm words you may pat on the drum, you play one drum beat per every syllable in a word
  • Traditional African Djembe uses: go, do, pa ta, gun dun, B= (bass, or Gun/Dun, right and left), O= (tone or go/do, right and left), and S=(slap or pa/ta, right and left), make sure it is viewed in evenly spaced font, or it won’t line up with the jingle or rhythm pattern
  • An alternate method to memorizing rhythms:  use jingles or songs, syllables of words match each pat on the drum, each drum rhythm is named and not just called Drum I or Drum II etc., then each drum rhythm has a song to go with the drum rhythm pattern, these jingles can be subconsciously beneficial and act as a memorizing tool, the jingles can also be used as life mantras
  • Reading Drum Music: B is Bass, T is Tone, O also means Tone or Other Hand, S is slap position, L is low bell, H is high bell, X is shaker
  • Different types of notes:  (   ) means  muffled,  small letter may mean finger touch as in time keeping, small s may mean a slide or swipe
  • An underlined place: dominant hand, right hand?  B
  • DJEMBE BACKGROUND RHYTHMS 4/4  or 6/8 are easy time keeping or root rhythms to keep the group in the same tempo

EXAMPLES of Drum Music – Reading Practice Sheets for 4/4 music:

Don’t let the written stuff scare you, drum notes are easy to make sense of when you have some instruction and some time with the drum. 

Drum notes are important, they can help keep a cultural rhythm the way it was meant to be played.


WALK  (in bold is the 1,2,3,4 count) (time keeping rhythm)

 Walking is one and, two and, three and, four and, set up in bass / tone

1                 2                 3                 4            

Walk ing,   Walk ing,    Walk ing,   Walk ing

B       T       B       T       B      T         B       T


1 Ee and ah 2 ee and ah 3 ee and ah 4 ee and ah

1      .        .         .       2       .        .         .       3      .        .         .       4       .        .         . 

B . T . B  . T  . B  . T . B  . T  .