Counting beats in music is a very important skill whether you're reading music or playing music. You need to know how to count in both.
What you don't technically need to know if you're playing music (like piano chords for example), is all the rhythm symbols that match the beats. You definitely need to know that for reading music though!
If you'd like to do a quick refresher of the different symbols or refer to them at any point, check out the music rhythm symbols page.
The first step in counting beats in music is to know or figure out what number you're going to count to.
If you have music in front of you, you'll have a time signature. The top number of the time signature is what we're counting to.
So for 4/4, we're counting to 4.
For 3/4, we're counting to 3.
For 6/8, we're counting to 6.
But what if you're not reading music?
Chances are you'll be counting to 4. That is the most common time signature. What you can do is listen for the strong beat - the loudest in a group - and see what you count until the next one.
It'll will likely be 4 (if you count 2, make it 4). It could also be 3 or 6. It's unlikely to be something else - but always possible.
What we're going to use for the example on this page is 4/4. So we're counting to 4!
In music, we have beats that are the foundation for our rhythm.
You can thinking of a steady drum beat here. That steady drum beat is the beat.
The main beats are going to fall on the number we say and if we're counting to 4, this will be 1, 2, 3, 4.
Main beats in 4/4 time: 1 2 3 4.
This is where we start having two different sets of numbers when reading music and it can get a little bit confusing sometimes.
We know that a quarter note gets 1 beat. And before you may have counted 1 1 1 1. Now we're changing this a bit. Within a bar or measure of written music (which has 2 lines on either side), we're going to say 1 2 3 4. One number for every quarter note because a quarter note gets 1 beat in 4/4 time.
Are you still with me?
If not, just think, we're going to count to 4. Each number is a beat.
Now that we know we're counting to 4, we can start working out how to count all the notes that don't fall directly on those numbers. There are multiple ways people can and do write music, so knowing how to count that out is very helpful!
Now when we get to this point, we're really going to focus on specific rhythm patterns that are written down. You don't need to count out rhythms as much if you are just playing piano chords. But if you wanted to, this is how you do it.
To count the beat in between a number - like beat 1 and beat 2 - we can use the word "and".
The "and" falls directly in the middle of the beats. This is equivalent to an 8th note.
To say it, you would say, "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and".
If you had a rhythm of 2 quarter notes and 4 eighth notes, you could count it out like this:
If you wanted to say the "and" every time to keep in strict time, you can. Just remember only to play on the "and" when you should.
If you have even faster notes than this - say 16th notes - we can say something else. I have always said, "1 e + a".
1 quarter note is equal to 4 sixteenth notes. And 2 eighth notes also equal 4 sixteenth notes. So we need to squish all of those in evenly to the same space the other notes would get.
We have the 1 to start the beat.
To play another 8th note, we'd hit a note on "and".
To play 4 sixteenth notes though, we need to fit in another note after 1 and another after "and".
So sixteenth notes would play on 1 e + a.
When you have notes that would be longer than a quarter note, you hold them for however many beats that note would get. You can still count the beats the same - just remember to hold it.
For a half note, you'd hold it for beats 1 2.
A dotted quarter note would get the counts 1 2 3.
A whole note would get beats 1 2 3 4.
Now we can mix and match.
In 4/4 time, we're going to count to 4. Each number is equivalent to a quarter note.
In between the beats, we can say "and". Saying "1 and" is equivalent to two 8th notes.
We can say "1 e + a" to count 16th notes. Saying 1 e + a is equivalent to 4 sixteenth notes.
If we change the time signature, it changes how we count.
If you need a full run down on what time signatures means, check out the time signatures page.
Remember that the top number is the number we will count to. The bottom number stands for a specific note getting 1 beat. If it's a 4, that's a quarter note.
In 3/4 time, we have 3 beats. We're going to count to 3.
The bottom note is a 4 so that means a quarter note gets 1 beat.
We can count everything else the same.
Quarter notes would fall on 1, 2, 3.
8th notes would fall on 1 + 2 + 3 +.
16th notes would fall on 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a.
Counting beats in 6/8 time is quite different from 4/4 or 3/4 because the bottom number has changed.
In 6/8 time, the bottom number refers to an 8th note. So an 8th note gets 1 beats. We are also counting to 6.
This means to each beat - 1 2 3 4 5 6 - is an 8th note.
We can still say "and" in between the beats. This "and" will be a 16th note.
What we've done is change the scale around. Each note doubles in value and we can just change which one means "1 beat".
In 6/8 time, a quarter note gets 2 beats.
In 2/2 time, we will be counting to 2. For each bar, you can say "1 2".
The note that gets 1 beat has changed to a half note. The bottom number in the 2/2 time signature means that a half note gets 1 beat.
This means half notes would fall on 1 2.
Quarter notes would fall on 1 + 2 +.
8th notes would fall on 1 e + a 2 e + a.
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Those are the essentials on how to count!