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How to Count Rhythms in Music

Learn the secrets of rhythm counting

Released on November 20, 2013

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Video Transcription

Welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin, your host. Today's subject is, "How do you count rhythms in music?" That's right, we're going to discuss that. You've all heard that...the band leader gets something that goes, "and a one and a two and a one." That sort of thing. Well, what's that all about? We're gonna dig in deeply here. Well, music...timing is one of the most critical aspects, not just in music, but of life itself. I sometimes describe it to younger students, this way. Just imagine if there was a party and you're invited to the party. You know where there party was, you know what the party was celebrating. You know all this stuff, but you didn't know when. Guess what? No party.

Same thing with music. All the notes are randomly placed out, even if they're perfectly in the right order, you would not even recognize the piece. Because rhythm is so intrinsic. Well, how do you translate the written page into proper rhythm, what the composer intended? Well, that's where counting comes in. How to count correctly. Well, I'm going to show you one way that you could approach counting and many people approach it this way. And I think it is a flawed system, but since it's so popular, I want to bring it up first and explain the flaw in it. I'm going to play a little bit of the "Minuet in G" of Bach and I'm going to count out loud. And I'm going to, actually, not be playing perfectly in rhythm, even though I'm counting out loud.

One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-and-three and one-two-three, one-two-three. You get the idea. What's happening? I'm counting whenever there's a note, but it's very difficult to keep the counting consistent, when the counting has to change. Instead of counting one-two-and-three-and one-two-three Instead, just like a ruler has all the inches on it, even if you don't have notes on that beat, you want to count every beat. So, listen what happens if I count every single beat and every single "and". It's precise and every single note has a slot to go in.

More than that, the counting can be consistent. Because just like a carpenter measuring for building, if the measuring tool is inconsistent from one foot to the next foot, you're going to have a lopsided sided structure. So it's true, with your music. Your music will be awkward, unless it's counted with regular beats. So, listen how beautifully this works out. One-and-two-and-three-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-one-and-two-and-three-and. This way, by counting all of the beats at all the subdivisions, you simply have the notes fall into place.

Now, as the speed increases, you can eventually count the "and"s in your head. You don't have to necessarily say them. Perhaps, even work with a metronome, at that point, once you've learned the rhythm. But by counting the rhythms out, you can figure out virtually any rhythm. For more complex rhythms, sometimes putting little lines in the music where the beats are to figure out all those subdivisions. Know where your beats are, count all the subdivisions and you should do great with your music, as well. Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at and
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Polkalouisjr on November 11, 2015 @8:35 am PST
I have always has trouble with both cut time and such time written as 6/8 or 12/8. How do suggest counting them?
kim * VSM MEMBER * on November 11, 2015 @6:23 am PST
Hi Robert,

Do you have a video about triplets? I find them difficult, I am playing O Tannenbaum arranged by Vince Guaraldi. The second page has a lot of triplets.

Marge Shery on November 11, 2015 @6:16 am PST
I'm working on Soon and very Soon with a choir. It's in 2/2 and I'm counting 1and 2 ee andone (andone is syncopated) - is that the way you're talking of counting syncopation as well?
Robert Estrin - host, on November 21, 2013 @3:51 pm PST
Big band music can be extremely intricate rhythmically. So, you must watch the bandleader and count like crazy! Eventually you may become familiar enough with the music where you won't have to count all the rests, but generally that is the surefire way to stay with the score.
Kaye Johnston * VSM MEMBER * on November 20, 2013 @8:34 pm PST
I am working hard on rhythms at the moment as I am in a Big Band and the music is difficult because it has lots of rests. I play trumpet (third) and I have to count really carefully all the time as all the trumpets have to come in at once. Any help or advice would be appreciated.
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