Reading music is a necessary part of learning an instrument. We must have the visual understanding of how note values work together to form rhythms. As drummers, we aren’t as focused on keys, chords, etc. but an overall understanding of music theory is arguably important for any musician.
So we must be able to see the music in order to determine what it sounds like. Similarly to how we read a book. We read the words on the page, they form sentences, and we understand the full story being told. Music is no different, except we are making an action after reading each note. The note is read and them a drum is hit, or a chord is strummed.
It might seem obvious for me to suggest it’s also important that we hear the music. While obvious, the challenging part may come when you ask someone to see and hear what they are playing at the same time. I’ve had students that are excellent readers but they are so involved with reading the part that they aren’t actually hearing what is being played. Getting both senses to work together creates a necessary checks and balances system in which your eyes identify the musical phrase and your ear validates how it sounds. Yes, there are amazing musicians without these senses. While this article assumes the reader can read and hear, I will say musicians without those abilities are extraordinary. They would have to overcompensate with certain senses to make up for the lack of another one.
Plenty of musicians “play by ear”, which just means they can play back some sort of musical phrase without the need to see it written down. We all want to get to this point. It’s really turning something that’s theoretical into second nature. Once we can play the drums without our focus being on reading the part, we can refocus that energy towards feeling that party and actually making it sound musical.
Once your eyes and ears have helped you get this far, you want to make your playing more natural. In second nature playing, you are better able to anticipate changes, create comping patterns, navigate your way through a song, and generally become a more improvisational player. Instead of worrying about how 2 dotted eighth notes followed by 4 sixteen notes SOUND while the feet are playing an alternating quarter note pattern, you are now in a position to make that whole idea FEEL a certain way. It’s amazing how you can put 10 drummers in a room, have them play the exact same thing, but each will have subtle nuances that make them different from one another. That is the power of feel.
Drummers refer to muscle memory, a term used to identify comfort as your muscles develop from a drumming perspective. For example, when I first started playing, I couldn’t play a very strong double stroke roll. By working on way to play a better one, over time, the muscles I used to execute a faster and more controlled double stroke roll had gotten smarter, stronger, and familiar with the movements I wanted to make. So in a way, the development of muscle memory is really just you telling your body what you want it to do and changing it over time.