In this article, we're going to learn a practical method to count music, useful to develop your sense of time.
A good sense of groove and a fundamental understanding of rhythm are essential for any great guitarist, as they are vital for proper timing, phrasing, and articulation.
Reading sheet music and counting time are often not as focused on as much as topics like scales, chords, riffs, and fingering exercises. However, they are essential for guitarists and really any musician who wishes to advance in their skill level.
If you are a beginner they will also help with your strumming technique as it improves timing.
Here are the basics of counting music for playing guitar or any instrument you happen to have.
So let's begin!
The Terms in Counting Music
Before you can learn how to count music you first need to know some essential terms and concepts, and that the basis of it all is the beat.
The beat is the pulse of the music that helps drive the rhythm with downbeats and upbeats, or unstressed and stressed movement.
Just as musical chords have intervals with consonance and dissonance they allow for a tension in the music. The back-and-forth stress helps give music a forward motion.
Meters And Time Signature
Here's a brief recap of my pasts complete article on time signatures.
Depending on how you group beats will create the meter and give the rhythm a particular pattern.
These patterns are grouped together in measures and the time signature tells us the details of the beat.
The lower number of the time signature tells you the note value and the top one how many notes are in each measure (which can also be called a bar).
So 4/4 or common time means you count in quarter notes and 4 are in each measure.
Now this doesn't mean you only count in quarter notes in that common time signature, other lengths are used. It just tells us our underlying pattern of counting; we still must learn to read the note rhythms of each measure.
When reading beats you can use numbers or syllables and there are many different syllable systems to choose from.
You can eventually use your own syllables and sounds if it helps!
If we want to count our notes from a piece of sheet music we need to know the different note values and their duration.
The length of time of the note can vary, as in songs with swing music where we shift our timing a little bit, but there is still the standard system used to determine value.
- Whole Notes have a length of one and they equal two half notes.
- Half Notes make up one whole note.
- Quarter Notes make up 1/4th so it takes 4 quarter notes in a 4/4 measure.
- Eighth Notes are quarters cut in half with 8 in a 4/4 measure
- Sixteenth notes are again halved so 16 will be in a common time bar.
We can keep halving the notes and get 32nd and 64th and so on but these are not regular notes we will be playing on guitar. If you are a drummer with a double bass pedal, yes these may show up in heavy shred metal!
And if you see a note with a dot beside it, that means you add on half the time, but we will stick to easier times initially.
Now each note value also has its own rest symbol, that way when a note is absent we know how long that value is.
Rests are not played but they are still counted as we need to stick to the meter.
There are various reasons for having rests, sometimes they are to help a player rest their breath, voice, or hands, in other situations they can add to the overall feel of the piece by leaving space in notes. All aspects of music are mostly about tension and release!
And speaking of tension, when we count our notes some are given stress while others are not. The downbeat is always the first beat and often given a little more stress and then the next upbeat is counted lighter before going back into a downbeat.
In 4/4 time the 1 is the strongest downbeat, while the third is a downbeat but not as powerful. The 2 and 4 are the upbeats and counted lighter unless you want syncopation.
Syncopation is where we stress upbeats or offbeats, like in Rock'n'Roll where we clap on the 2 and 4.
This backbeat accentuation gives the music more drive and is the inspiration for most modern music that makes you want to dance. Syncopation and swing change the stress and timing which makes music groovy!
How to Count Music
Since common 4/4 time is the easiest and most well-known time signature it is best to start in that and with quarter notes.
Counting Quarter Notes
One measure of these notes would be counted as:
1 2 3 4
Turn a metronome or a drum machine on as slow as you need and just clap or tap out this very simple beat. Don't worry initially about stressing any beats, just keep in time with the click.
Once you have that just clap on the downbeat or the 1 and 3.
You can also go back to clapping on every beat, except hitting the 2 and 4 harder. Notice how these are all similar ways to count the music but they provide a different overall feel.
On the guitar, play this quarter notes with four consecutive downstrokes.
It's also incredibly helpful to tap your foot. Somehow it has been shown that using the body allow you to learn rhythmic concepts quicker.
Counting Eighth Notes
When counting 1/8th notes we add another syllable in, for this we will stick to "and." There are 8 of them in the measure and we count and clap exactly as it says above.
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
Play this sequence with downstrokes on the quarter beats (1 2 3 4), and upstrokes on the other notes (and). And remember to tap your foot!.
As you get these rhythms down you might notice they sound familiar, they are very common in many popular genres.
Counting Sixteenth Notes
As we keep dividing the beat we must add more sounds or syllables in and for sixteenth notes these are the most common. Before you even start clapping make sure you are comfortable saying it out loud.
1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a
You can count this fast by hitting on all of them or you can just clap on the 1 2 3 4 while saying the e and a between claps.
Some Interesting Combinations
Once you have that simple counting down, start challenging yourself by adding in different combinations of quarters and eighths.
Try 1 2 and 3 4 or 1 2 3 and 4 or even 1 and 2 3 and 4, make sure to keep the metronome slow as it will take some time to get the brain and hands working right.
Keep in mind music can have all of these note values in a 4/4 time song, and it will be up to you to decipher it by counting the note right.
And you will also have to deal with measures that have rests. Here are some examples of note values counted with added rests in various positions.
Here are some examples to give an idea of the many possible combinations:
1 2 3 and 4
1 and 2 3 4
1 and 2 3 4 and
1 2 e and a 3 4
1 2 e and a 3 4 e and a
1 2 e and 3 4 e and a
Depending on where we put rests or accents can be the foundation of our genres or hallmarks of our style.
As mentioned rock is heavy on the backbeat and it also uses a lot of 1/8th notes.
Funk also uses this backbeat but it depends more on 1/16th notes to add more syncopation, James Brown also loved to accent the 1 with the whole band. While reggae is fond of dropping the first downbeat and accenting the 3rd.
The words between brackets are rests that you silently still count, but don't play.
It's helpful to keep the hands moving at the usual pace (downstrokes or upstrokes), but without actually producing any sound.
1 2 3 (4)
1 2 and (3) and 4
Counting Other Time Signatures
3/4 Time Signature
A time signature of 3/4 has three quarter notes in its measure so is simply counted as 1 2 3.
This may sound familiar as it is common in waltz and vaudeville type songs. And of course this time can have other note lengths so you can add in a 1 and 2 and 3 and for eighth notes.
1 2 3
5/4 Time Signature
5/4 time is like the song "Mission Impossible" and has 5 quarter notes per measure. This gives the song a much choppier vibe with the extra note.
This helps to divide it up into either 1 2 3 1 2 or 1 2 1 2 3 which are both 5/4 but slightly a different feel.
1 2 3 12
6/8 Time Signature
6/8 time has an 8 in the bottom so our base note value is an eighth note and there are 6 notes per measure. So we count 1 2 3 4 5 6 with a stress on the 1 and 4. This has a very folk and traditional feel, and yes it is like 3/4 time, the different structure of the song will depend on the time.
Of course these are concepts you will have to build up to.
When you have an odd number on top of the time signature you usually break the beat counting into sections of 2's and 3's. 7/4 time can be 1 2 1 2 1 2 3 and can be heard in Pink Floyd's "Money."
Counting Music: Conclusions
It can be difficult to get the hang of meters outside of 4/4 and 3/4 because we are all so used to hearing music in these time.
So first practice your counting in 4/4 and use popular songs to practice with. Keep in mind that some songs start on an upbeat, so you must listen for the downbeat to get the 1.
Counting music and reading rhythms is not easy, to succeed at the skill you need to work at it every time you learn a new song.