Counting musical notes

How to Count Music: Be Rhythm Ready with These Basic Tips

Are you a budding musician just starting to learn to read music? Maybe you have plenty of experience playing interpretively, but want to get a better handle on musical technique and hone your timing and synchronization. Either way, learning to properly count music is a skill that you’ll find helpful throughout your musical journey, not to mention absolutely essential if you’re planning to play with other people.

The first thing you’ll need to learn in order to keep time is your basic note values. We explored note values in our “How to Read Sheet Music” blog post a while back. You can familiarize yourself with note values, as well as meter (the beat), by reviewing that blog post. Below is a general refresher on note values.

Note Values

Learn to count musical notes

Next, you’ll need to understand time signatures. Again, you’ll find the basic overview in our “How to Read Sheet Music” post. The time signature’s top number tells you how many beats you’ll play in a measure, and the bottom number gives you the value of a single beat (the pulse your foot taps with or the tempo your metronome will tick with). Beginners should start by clapping or tapping along to the beat with song recordings, in order to establish a basic understanding of tempo and time.

Even for those of us who are experts at reading music, playing on beat can prove difficult to perfect. Often, while we’re playing, we perceive that we’re playing right on beat. However, if you listen back to a recording of your practice session, you’ll notice instances that are slightly off. And those very slight nuances can mean the difference of your next performance sounding muddled or cleanly finished like a pro.

We’ve put together a few of our favorite tips for practicing in (close to) perfect time.

Count Aloud

As you can see in the quarter-to-eighth-to-sixteenth note chart above, we count music aloud (“one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”) to help identify the beat of a piece of music. This allows you to sub-divide the quarter notes (beats) in a simple, audible way.

There are many ways to count music aloud, including the popular use of numbers, “and,” and vowels. Each measure’s downbeats take the number, upbeats the “and,” and subdivisions in-between take vowels including “e” and “a.” Triplets can just be counted out by sounding out “trip-a-let,” using a number and the word “1-trip-let,” “2-trip-let,” or you could use any triple-syllabic word you fancy “chim-pan-zee” “pine-ap-ple” “mus-ic-notes” (ok, maybe the last one is a bit of a stretch). For dotted notes, you simply divide the beats-per-measure out.  For example, say you have a measure in 4/4 time with a half-note, dotted quarter and eighth note. You’d count “One…Two, Three-and-four, and.”

Counting

Other systems of vocalized subdivision include the “ta ti-ti” method of reading rhythms using syllables, with “ta” quarter notes, “ti-ti” eighth notes, “tiri-tiri” sixteenth notes and onward.

Once you become familiar with whatever vocalized method works best for you, it’ll help to count out any new piece of music prior to attempting to play it.

My Metronome, My Friend

Your metronome can be your best friend when it comes to keeping time while practicing a new-to-you piece. Your metronome will act as your tempo guide, and learning to play with the metronome will pay off when playing away from it as well.

Metronome

Your metronome signifies the pulse of your song by “ticking” or employing a visual motion with your beats per minute (BPM). Although we almost never play exactly aligned with our metronome, its controlled tempo can aid in consistency, you can use it slow down or speed up technical exercises, and sheet music commonly displays a BPM, marking the speed a piece is to be played at.

Metronome marking

A simple Amazon.com search for metronomes brings up hundreds of viable options, ranging from the standard ticking pendulum to digital tuner/metronome combos (with prices from around $15 up to more than $200).  You may also choose to download a metronome app, which we featured in our “Useful Apps for Musicians” post. In addition to the app featured in that post, we like Metronome Plus (iOS only, Free or $1.99 for add-on features) and Tempo (Android, $0.99).

Branch Out

If you only practice counting in 4/4 time, you’ll most likely run into problems when attempting to play in other time signatures. It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with and start practicing a variety of time signatures.

Listen and/or follow along to sheet music for well-known works in somewhat obscure meters like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in 5/4 time, “Money” by Pink Floyd in 7/4 time and “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, which uses 3/4 time (unusual for a pop song). Count aloud with the notes on the sheet music, until you begin to notice and feel patterns. And for even more obscure time signatures, like 7/8 time, try dividing each measure into more manageable parts (2 times 2 and 1 times 3), as this sheet music example of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” displays.

Have Fun

One of our more recent obsessions is the music rhythm game “Deemo,” an app that challenges you to tap with various melodies in order to complete the song and pass the next story level. It’s really an unusual combination, yet totally addictive to play.

Deemo game for iOS and Android

Speaking of apps, many of you have requested that we add a tempo-change functionality to our Musicnotes Android and our recently updated iOS Viewer and brand-new Player apps. Keep an eye out in coming months for that and more great updates, and please keep your suggestions coming. Your insights are what inspire us to continuously make our sheet music viewer and playback apps even better!

Do you have additional pointers that you use while counting music? Do you think it’s important to include rhythm study in your music education? Please share your thoughts, insights (and app suggestions!) in the comments section below.

Leave a Reply

20 comments

  1. It’s important not to play TOO metronomically, as well.

    • Agree! Or you are going to miss articularity, which is also importnant.

      • mhai carlos

        orayt i get it thanks

  2. Mark

    Makes no sense to me. I just play what I know.

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  5. Kayraaaa

    How…!?!?! I have an assignment for school and I’m gonna fail!!!!

  6. Having taught thousands of students how to play drums I know that performing at a steady tempo or performing to a click / metronome can be a struggle. Some naturally had an internal metronome (or at least beats and counting etc) but others really really struggled. The only want to develop this is to put it in to practice over and over again. Start by clapping a simple rhythm (something different to the quarter note metronome click) and do so with a steady click until you can just continue at the right pace, pretty much ignoring the click. Once you’ve mastered that, switch the tempo both up and down and see how you go. Once you’ve got that, try switching rhythms, making things more complicated or change the feel etc. Before you know it you’ll be improvising rhythms but still sitting on a steady click! Good luck with it :-)

  7. ErgoPete

    I am having trouble with a Music teacher insisting on clapping on 1 and 3. I mentally count or tap my foot 1 2 3 4 not ONE two THREE four. The clap seems to destroy the steady beat. Any explanation welcome.

  8. Larry

    I’m looking to learn how to keep the beat in order to dance better. Does anyone know of a good iPhone app that will allow me to import a song and have a metronome playing in the background?

    Thanks,

  9. Kylee L

    Thanks for this information. I want to try out deemo and carrying around my metronome like I do my cell phone! :=)

  10. Deb

    Help I don’t understand the changing beats in the remix of the song let’s get married with run DMC do you know what I mean

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