Updated: May 3
If you notate music for drumset, you have to define which line of your staff corresponds with which instrument of your drumset. This allocation is usually referred to as a drumkey.
However, you may not have considered the fact that most of the drumkeys out there seem to be pretty random - or just being different for the sake of being different. So let's take a closer look at the three main drumkeys and why they still make by far the most sense if you're writing drum sheet music or drum transcriptions.
#1 Traditional Drum Key (4-piece drumset)
The Traditional notation comes from the 4-piece drumset, which is the oldest "modern" drumset configuration that we know. Notice how the four drums perfectly fit the spaces - that's also the reason why the snaredrum is traditionally notated in the second space (the lines and spaces are always counted from the top).
Makes perfect sense
Evenly spaced, no drum is getting in the way of another
Only suitable for 4-piece drumset
#2 Traditional Drum Key (5-piece drumset)
As playing with an additional rack tom became more popular, the traditional notation was expanded with a note on the second line, directly beneath the first rack tom. This way, the new auxiliary rack tom found a new auxiliary notation quickly and without changing anything about the traditional drumset notation.
No need to re-learn anything
Applicable to both 5- and 4-piece drumsets
Not evenly spaced
Can get confusing to read if there are lots of tom-heavy fills
#3 Modern Drum Key (5-piece drumset)
This way of drumset notation defines the snaredrum as the central instrument of the drumset and places it on the third line, directly in the middle of the staff. The three toms and the kickdrum obtain the remaining spaces from top to bottom.
Snaredrum in the center, easy to make out
Still makes sense and looks great for most applications
Hitting snaredrum and low tom together looks weird
PRO Drumsheets exclusively uses the modern drumkey for 5-piece drumset, since it is easy to understand and read. If a sheet or a transcription requires more drums or more cymbals, we took the liberty to arrange these parts for standard 5pc drumkit, so it can be played by as many drummers as possible.
Feel free to download the complete drumkey right here:
For the sake of readability, cymbals are usually notated with "x" noteheads and will always be placed above the drum section. The only exception is the stepped hi-hat, which is placed under the staff.
While traditionally only one line was used for both hi-hat and ride cymbal, nowadays it's more common to use two different places on the staff. I like to place the hi-hat cymbal on the very first line and the ride cymbal in the space directly above the first line since the hi-hat is physically closer to the snare in real life and the usual kick/snare/hat grooves are a little bit easier to read that way.
The crash cymbal is usually placed on a ledger line, which makes it look like a little star.
Make sure to check out all the Free Drum Sheets on our website for some actual examples. And also: feel free to comment, like and share!