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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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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.