How to Read Cymbal Music

By Carl Hose

Cymbals are percussion instruments that accompany a drum set and are used to help keep the rhythm section stable. Cymbals also are used in marching bands and orchestras as stand-alone instruments. Reading music for cymbals, hi-hat and ride cymbals is simple to learn, even for beginners. If you already know how to read standard music notation, you're halfway there. If you don't understand music notation, there is a little study ahead of you, but the task isn't overwhelming. A basic introduction to reading music notation will help get you started.

Look at your music-notation paper. Each staff on the paper is made up of five lines and four spaces. These lines and spaces are where you will read and write notation for all the types of cymbals. Find the first space above the top line of the music staff. This is where you will read the hi-hit cymbals. One line above the hi-hat is where you read the crash cymbal, sometimes simply called a cymbal. Read the hi-hat pedals on the space below the first, or lowest, line of the music staff.

Read the beginning music information for cymbal music as you read standard music notation. There will be a time signature that tells you how many beats of music there are to a bar. Bars of music are separated by vertical lines, with the correct number of beats contained within each bar. A typical time signature is at the start of the sheet music and looks like this: 4/4. This is common time, with four beats of music per bar, indicated by a combination of note values.

Read rhythms for cymbals as you read rhythm for standard music notation, except instead of a note head, cymbal notation uses an "x." A quarter note, for instance, looks like this: "xl." There are various notes to indicate different rhythms, which dictate the number of beats. In common time you need four beats of music per bar. You establish these beats by using whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes. You might need to consult a book on how to read music if you aren't familiar with note values. A whole note in common time means to play the cymbal and let it ring for the full bar; a half note means you will play the cymbal twice, letting it ring for two beats each time, filling the four-beat requirement for the bar, and so on.

Read all other musical direction as you would read standard music notation. This includes symbols that tell you how hard or soft to strike your cymbals.


Write cymbal notation on blank music paper to help you get used to reading the rhythms. The more you write cymbal notation, the quicker you will be able to read cymbal notation.

About the Author

Carl Hose is the author of the anthology "Dead Horizon" and the the zombie novella "Dead Rising." His work has appeared in "Cold Storage," "Butcher Knives and Body Counts," "Writer's Journal," and "Lighthouse Digest.". He is editor of the "Dark Light" anthology to benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities.