How to Count Rhythm

Sometimes, musicians are so concerned with playing the right notes, that they put rhythmic accuracy on the backburner. Don’t let that be you! Rhythm is largely responsible for giving music its energy, and in ensemble playing, it’s essential to ensuring that everyone stays together.

Instead of accepting “close enough” when faced with tricky rhythms, have a plan for tackling them. First, write the counting underneath the notes. Then, clap the rhythm while counting it out loud. (Bonus points for using your metronome!) Next, play the rhythm on a single pitch on your instrument. Finally, you’ll be ready to add the actual notes back in and play through the passage.

Here are some hints on how to count rhythms when they involve more than just numbers.

Eighth Notes

You know that an eighth note is worth a half beat—but how do you count that out loud? For the first half of the beat, use the number of the beat you’re on in the measure. For the second half of the beat, use the word “and” (indicated with the symbol “+”).

Sixteenth Notes

Sixteenth notes divide the beat even further, into fourths, so we need new syllables to represent these additional portions of the beat. The syllables for counting sixteenth notes are “1 e + a,” where the initial number represents the beat you are on in the measure.


Triplets fit three notes into a space where two notes would normally go. For example, typically, two eighth notes add up to one beat. However, if three eighth notes are grouped as triplets, all three notes must fit into the one beat, divided evenly into thirds. Similarly, if three quarter notes are grouped as triplets, all three must fit into two beats. The syllables for counting triplet rhythms are “1 la li.”

Mixed Rhythms

Of course, most of the time, you’ll find a mixture of rhythmic values within one measure and even within one beat. Just remember that each new beat should start with a new number, and that each smaller subdivision of the beat has its own unique syllable, as described in the paragraphs above.


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This method of counting only works if you already know how the music goes. And by the way, clapping the time doesn’t provide duration because a clap lasts a very short time. to count properly and successfully do what it says in my essays on counting. You can get these if you want them by emailing me directly at

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