How to programme common drum patterns - a beginner’s guide for students

Encourage students creativity: record drum patterns from scratch

When using music software to put a song together, it’s easy for students to head straight to the loop library to find a drum pattern.  It’s a quick solution, but once you become familiar with the loop library of your school’s chosen software package, you start to hear those same loops everywhere.  All of your student projects will begin to sound the same.

To save your own sanity (!) and to encourage student creativity and originality, teach them a few basics about how to programme their own drum patterns.  Once they know a few simple tips they’ll find it much more rewarding that simply dragging a loop into a project.

Start with the basics, then get experimental

Each musical genre has it’s own drum “sound” or template. Students can start off by learning how to put together a “standard” version of a hip hop beat, or a rock beat or techno beat and then create variations by changing instruments, adding or moving sounds and so on.

Using drum pattern grids

A drum grid is a common way of visually notating a drum pattern.  It makes it easy to transfer the information to the digital drum machines that can be found in music software and apps.  In software and apps, drum patterns are generally programmed into a step sequencers (like the DM1 app for iPad or the HTML5 Drum Machine) or a piano roll editor (such as the one you would find in GarageBand, Mixcraft, Soundation or Soundtrap).

Here’s a digital version of an original drum machine – a step sequencer called HTML Drum Machine:

3 HTML5 Drum machine

And here’s the step sequencer app DM1:

How to record drum beats in DM1

This is what the piano roll view of the drum kit look like in GarageBand:

How to record drum beats in DM1

And the same thing in Soundtrap:


How to create a drum pattern

In order to create a drum pattern in any of the above options, you simply need to work out where to place each instrument sound to get the desired result.

Drum step sequencers generally have 16 slots or “steps” which represent 16th notes (semiquavers) in a single measure of music in 4/4 time.  In other words, the 4 beats of the measure fall on slot numbers 1, 5, 9 and 13.

In the drum grid example below, the snare is playing on beats 2 and 4.  The equivalent step positions are 5 and 13.

Hip Hop drum pattern

A piano roll editor (like the one found in GarageBand) works in a similar way, but students may need to adjust the “snap to grid” settings to 16th notes or 8th notes, or zoom in on the timeline so that they are able to place sounds on the correct subdivision of the beat.  They will also need to be familiar with the MIDI drum map so that they know which notes produce the drum sounds they need (ie. C1 = bass drum, D1 = snare).

Free download: basic drum patterns

I’ve put together drum notation grids for some common styles.  In the grids I have given both the sequencer step position (so you know where to place the sound for a specific instrument) and the beat subdivision (so you know where you are in the measure!).  An icon in the pattern grid indicates that the instrument plays on that beat of the measure/sequencer position.

You can download these patterns at the bottom of this post.

Lesson plan

  1. Students pick one of the following genres:
  1. Students then record the basic pattern for their chosen genre in your music software or app, using the provided drum notation grids as a guide
  1. Students create and record a minimum of 3 variations on their chosen pattern.  They could do any or all of the following:
  • Change the instrument/kit sound
  • Add extra sounds into the pattern
  • Remove some of the existing sounds
  • Shift the rhythmic position of some of the sounds in the basic pattern
  • Alter the tempo

Further reading

Free download: drum pattern “recipes”

To download a copy of the 6 common drum pattern “recipes”, click on the button below and a copy will be sent straight to your email inbox.


Coming in part 2: free empty grid templates and icons

In part two of this series, I’ll share some empty grid templates (that are editable!) and instrument icons you can use with your students.