While there are many musicians who can learn music by ear, most beginners should learn how to read music. Understanding how to count music is also important to dancers and can contribute to the enjoyment of a casual listener. Part of reading music is the ability to “count” it, or knowing how long to hold each note on the page. It is also important to understand what a time signature is. This article describes the basic principles of counting using 4/4 time and introduces time signatures.

Part 1

Counting Rhythms

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    Understand what a measure is. Music is divided into measures, which are designated by a vertical line. Notes in music are named based on how much time they take up within a measure. Think of the measure as a pie that can be cut into quarters, halves, eighths or a combination of different notes.
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    Learn basic notation. The names of the notes clue you in to how much of the measure they will take. This will necessitate a rudimentary understanding of fractions. A whole note will take the whole measure. A half note will take half of the measure.

    • Quarter notes take a quarter of the measure.
    • Eighth notes take one eighth of the measure.
    • Sixteenth notes take one sixteenth of the measure.
    • Notes can be combined to make one whole, for instance one half note and two quarter notes makes one whole measure.
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    Practice keeping the beat. In an even rhythm tap your heel and count to four repeatedly, like this: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. The speed is less important than keeping the time even between each number. A metronome can also be helpful in setting an even beat.

    • Each full cycle of 1-2-3-4 is one measure.
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    Practice counting basic note lengths. Say or sing “la” while continuing to keep up the counting in your head. A whole note will take the whole measure, so begin singing “la” at the number 1, and hold it until you have reached 4. You have just performed a whole note.

    • Two half notes make up a measure. Sing “la” for 1-2 then a new “la” for 3-4.
    • There are four quarter notes in a measure. Sing “la” for each number you’re tapping.
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    Add syllables for smaller notes. For eighth notes you will need to divide the measure into eight even pieces, but you are still only beating four times per measure. Add the word “and” between each number as you count like this: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.” Practice this until it becomes easy. Each word is one eighth note.

    • Use a similar principle to count sixteenth notes. You will need to fit sixteen sounds into one measure and do it evenly. One common way to do this is to say “1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, 3-e-and-a, 4-e-and-a.” Remember that the numbers should still be perfectly even.
    • The same general idea can be applied to ever smaller notes, but as these notes appear rarely they are less important to master as a beginner.
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    Understand what a dot means. Sometimes in music there is a small dot immediately after a note. This dot indicates that the note’s length should be increased by 50%.

    • A half note, normally worth two beats, becomes three beats with a dot.
    • A quarter note, worth one beat without the dot, takes 1.5 beats with a dot.
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    Practice triplets. Triplets are when one beat is divided into three notes. This is tricky because otherwise all the notes you have practiced are even fractions. Vocalizing syllables can help you get the hang of triplets.

    • Practice counting triplets by saying “1-e-and, 2-e-and, 3-e-and, 4-e-and.
    • Remember to continue keeping the numbers even using a metronome or tapping your foot.
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    Break the rules. A fermata is a sign that looks like a dot with an eyebrow over a note. When you see this symbol it means that note can be held for as long as you like, regardless of what the music might say.

    • If you are part of an ensemble the director will determine how long it should be held.
    • If you are performing solo consider in advance what will be most appropriate length.
    • Listen to recordings of your piece if you are uncertain how long to hold. This will give you a sense of what other performers have done and you can decide what sounds best.

Part 2

Understanding Time Signatures

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    Find the time signature. At the top left hand corner of a piece of music you will see several notations. The first is a symbol called the clef, which typically depends on the instrument for which the piece was composed. Next there may be some sharps or flats. Finally you will see two numbers stacked on top of each other. This is the time signature.

    • For the first part of this article we used the signature 4/4 which is indicated by two fours stacked on top of one another.
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    Understand the significance of each number in the time signature. The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure, and the bottom number is which note value gets the beat. It is most common for a four to appear on the bottom, giving the quarter note the beat.

    • In 4/4 time the top note tells you that there are four beats in a measure, and the bottom note tells you that a quarter note is gets the beat.
    • In 2/4 time there are two beats in a measure, but you are still counting a quarter note as a beat. So instead of counting 1-2-3-4, you would use that same pace but simply say 1-2, 1-2.
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    Practice a waltz. Music set in 3/4 time counts three quarter notes to every measure. The waltz is always danced in this rhythm, and finding a song that is designated as a waltz may help you to hear the pattern more clearly. As you listen count “1-2-3” in your head.

    • The song “Christmas Waltz” has a distinctive waltz rhythm, and also contains the lyrics “and this song of mine/in three-quarter time” tipping you off to the rhythm.
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    Review less common time signatures. The top number always denotes the number of beats in a measure, and the bottom always signifies what note gets the beat. If the bottom number is an 8, then you should count eighth notes. If the bottom number is a 2 then you should count half notes.

    • 6/8 meter is like the waltz in that the beats are grouped into threes, but there are two of them. Beats 1 and 4 should get the emphasis: “ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six.” Beat one is the strongest beat.
    • 3/2 times means you should count three half notes for one measure. One half note is worth two quarter notes. Try counting evenly to six, emphasizing the odd numbers: “ONE-two-THREE-four-FIVE-six, ONE-two-THREE-four-FIVE-six.” By emphasizing the odd numbers you’re pointing out where each half note begins. By counting the even numbers you’re ensuring a regular pace.
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    Practice counting while listening to music. The time signature gives a distinctive rhythmic sound to different types of music. For example, composers often write marches in 2/4 time to give a distinctive feeling of boots stepping 1-2, 1-2.

    • Pop, country and other music aimed at a broad audience typically has some form of 2 or 4 in the time signature because people like to tap their foot along with the music. Choosing a simple time signature makes it easy for a general audience to enjoy it.
    • Jazz and other modern music often sounds disjointed because of unusual time signatures, such as 13/8, 5/4 and other uneven divisions. This will be a challenge to count, but may help you see how the time signature contributes to the overall feel of music.