Recently, a student of mine asked me how I learn music, and how I learn drums, just by listening. This got me thinking…

Contrary to popular belief, learning to play music by ear isn’t as complicated as you may think. In the following paragraphs I’ll outline a framework that will help you accurately decipher what you’re hearing and transpose it onto your instrument.

First things first though, what am I basing this framework on? Let’s suppose that your regular job is to learn drums to songs by ear. In order to do your job successfully, as with any other job, you need to go through a mental process of asking yourself a set of specific questions that will help lead you to the correct answer.

So, we need to establish what these questions are. Alongside these questions you’ll also need good timing, and of course patience, as you train and develop your ear.

Question #1: How good is my timing? 

A very important aspect of learning by ear is developing your timing – being able to play in time (i.e. not faster or slower, and to the correct time signature) to the song. This means that you will need to pair each stroke to its corresponding drum component on cue.

If you are a beginner, developing your timing doesn’t necessarily start with you playing single strokes on a pad against a metronome – this can be dull, but highly addictive. Rather, try listening to music and clap or tap along to the pulse created by the bass drum. Most popular music is counted in 4/4 (i.e. four quarter notes per measure).

Question #2: What sounds am I hearing?

This question is just as important as Question #1 as you need to cement the groundwork for both before you go any further.

Being able to recognise what each component of the drum kit sounds like and being able to isolate them is crucial. This is for several reasons, including helping you determine

  • When are those sounds taking place? We want to be able to place the sounds we recognise along a timeline or map – much like we would programme a drum beat in MIDI

  • Whether it’s the drummer producing those sounds*, or if it’s an extra percussionist / DJ / or samples. For instance, if we know the shakers you’re hearing are being produced whilst you know your drummer is using all his limbs on other drums / cymbals, by process of elimination we can discard that as part of what we want to be playing

* It also helps to know who the drummer is, as someone like Terry Bozzio can trick the ear. Simply check out his Samba Ousado and you’ll know what I mean.

Question #3: When are these sounds happening?

Once you are able to recognise the sounds you are hearing, you then need to begin mapping them in your brain. As previously mentioned, think of this as programming a drum beat using MIDI, whereby you allocate sounds along a timeline. This will also enable you to comprehensibly assign each sound to the limb you will play it with.

To begin this process you need to start with a reference point, which can be very abstract. For instance, with the guitar you’d first need to recognise a note within a song, and then determine whether the subsequent note is higher or lower in pitch, and so on.

When you learn drums by ear, the reference point I’d like to demonstrate, given it applies to most popular music, is a basic rock beat (i.e. snare on beats 2 & 4, bass on beats 1 & 3 with eighth notes on the hi-hats).

Being able to count will help you with this. Particularly being able to break 1 2 3 4 down into smaller subdivisions like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + or 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a, and so on.

Once we determine our reference point we’re then able to match it, or in other words, place it directly on top of the beat we’re trying to figure out, making sure that we’re superimposing it at the correct time.

Question #4: What’s happening within the groove or fill that makes it sound like it does?

Once our reference point has been established correctly within our mental timeline, we can then start thinking about what makes the groove different from our reference groove.

  • Can we recognise extra snare or bass drums happening?

  • What’s happening with the hi-hats? Can we hear extra hi-hats being played as sixteenth or 32nd notes?

  • What cymbals are being played, and what drums are happening at the same time?

  • If so, where do all of these fall within the ‘timeline’ / count?

  • When talking about a fill (assuming we’re still counting 1 2 3 4) how many additional sounds/strokes are occurring in between each beat? Is there a Tom-Tom? If so, how many?


Following the above framework will hopefully provide you with a good basis for figuring drum parts out by ear.  I’ve tried not to go into excruciating detail, or use too much musical language, in order to keep things at the common denominator – plain English.

What is interesting to me, however, is that not everyone is able to accurately figure music out by ear.  This implies there is a certain element of hearing what you want to hear vs. what is actually happening. We need to be as objective as possible throughout the process.

Yet does playing what you hear as opposed to playing what is ‘actually’ being played matter?  If not, then once we’ve built our interpretation, we could proceed to refine our results. There are tools online which can help us with this, i.e. tablature, YouTube and its covers, software to slow down a song without losing pitch, etc. The trick, once again, is to remain objective and keep an open mind to other interpretations, as this will further help you hone and tune your ears.


Here are a few tips to further help you in the process.


It’s a lot easier to recognise what’s happening when what you’re hearing is congruent to how you play it. If you’re hearing the hi-hats on your right speaker (or headphone), chances are you’re hearing what it sounds like to be looking at the drummer from an audiences perspective (i.e. Tom-toms will also start highest to Floor Toms from right to left). Ergo, why not try switching your headphones around so that you’re hearing and visualising the kit from the drummer’s seat?

Subdivision of beats

The more you are able to subdivide your 1 2 3 4 count in your head the more freedom you’ll have placing hits in relation to others, no matter what time signature. You want the subdivisions to be endless, giving you a certain fluidity to drop a stroke anywhere you want along your timeline.

Originally published by Drummer Magazine in Issue 131, August 2014