Drummers: Should You Play by Ear or Learn to Read Music?

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Drummers: Should You Play by Ear or Learn to Read Music?

Author - Woodwind & Brasswind

While many musicians are classically trained by participating in school music programs or taking private music lessons, drummers are often self-taught players who start out learning to play music on their drumset by emulating simple beats from songs and drummers they love. In fact, there are many famous drummers who don’t know how to read sheet music. Is there an advantage to knowing how to read percussion music, or is it better to be self-taught and play drums by ear? Or is it best to be able to do both?

Playing by Ear

If you’re a drummer, no matter what level you are, and you only play by ear, there are some pros and cons to this method.

Pros

  • - Truly good musicianship requires you to be good with your ears, so having the ability to listen to and then play a song is a great skill to possess.
  • - Drummers who learn and play by ear often have a very good sense of where a song is going and adjust very quickly – this can be especially important and fun in jam situations where the musicians are creating and adapting as they go.
  • - When you’re not depending on a chart, you can be creative with your drumming techniques and fill in and change where necessary.
  • - Many musicians are most relaxed in a musical environment where you have your songs and repertoire committed to memory so you don’t have to read music or charts and can simply work on your craft and technique.
  • - Musicians who play be ear are may be more committed to their instrument, because you’ve taken the time to figure it out on your own and you feel so proud when you’ve taught yourself something.
  • - By learning in a community of natural musicians, you get exposure to other players by jamming together or simply watching one another perform and listening to new styles.

Cons

  • - If you want to play professionally, there will be many gigs that you cannot do because you cannot read sheet music. This can greatly limit your ability to making a living playing drums.
  • - Likewise, if you have any interest in teaching music, you won’t be able to get a job without being able to read sheet music. You’ll need to know this so that you can teach students how to read it.
  • - In any playing situation, you may waste other musicians’ time when you must learn an arrangement, as you’ll be much slower, needing to hear the music several times to pick up the beats and rhythm.
  • - Without being able to read music, you may not understand when someone gives direction based on notes, rhythms, or any other term that may be unfamiliar if you can't read music.

Reading Sheet Music

Drummers who start in a school music program will be taught how to read sheet music, but they may not have much experience learning and playing songs by ear. While knowing how to read music certainly means they can drum with competence on acoustic drums and electronic drums, there are pros and cons to only knowing this style.

Pros

  • - While you won’t necessarily be a better musician if you can read drum music, it will improve your understanding of music in general.
  • - You don’t need to be a fully fluent reader of music to still get the positive impacts from being able to follow along, learn and grow by reading.  
  • - Reading music accelerates your growth and speeds up the learning process.
  • - Activities like playing in multiple bands, teaching lessons, participating in recording sessions, performing in musicals, etc., all of which help sustain a professional musical career, wouldn’t be possible without the ability to read music.
  • - Reading music and understanding note values and musical terminology make it easier to communicate with other players, especially in time-crunched situations. For example, if you’re subbing for another musician, someone might say, “In the chorus, play eighth notes on the bass drum, then go back to quarter notes for the ending.” If you don’t understand what he’s saying, you’ll be frustrated and frustrate the other musicians around you.
  • - Simply put, if you want to be a professional musician or give music lessons as a teacher, you need to know how to read sheet music.

Cons

  • - Very few players will be inspired to play drums from opening a drum manuscript.
  • - It will require work, time and patience to learn to read sheet music, especially if you’ve been playing by ear for a while.
  • - You may discover it’s harder to find your “groove” when you only know how to play from sheet music, since reading charts is more formulaic and formal instead of creative and free-flowing.

Advantages of Being Able to Read Music and Play by Ear

As evidenced by the lists above, there are many advantages to playing by ear and being able to read sheet music. So, it only makes sense that being able to do both will give you the greatest advantage of all! Combining the pros from both styles of learning means that you’ll have the formal ability to sub in for other players, teach lessons and have intelligent musical conversations with other players while also retaining the ability to adjust on the fly, jam with other musicians comfortably and potentially find and maintain your “groove” quicker and easier.

Constantly working on and improving your drumming technique as well as your reading and playing skills will allow you to expand your repertoire, accept more gigs, teach, speak the language with other drummers and musicians, expand into other instruments and generally become a better drummer each and every day.


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