Oct 10

Introduction to Counting Rhythm (for Drummers – and anyone else learning music!)

by in Drums, Fundamentals

Why Count?

Rhythm and timing are arguably the most important elements of music! Listeners will often put up with spotty-tonality (Bob Dylan’s raspy-nasal out of tune voice “adds character” to his music), but it’s pretty rare for listeners to enjoy music that is performed in a sloppily-out-of-time-and-out-of-control kind of way.

A fairly simplistic and broad description of music that I like is “organized sound.” And I also like to describe “rhythm” as events happening in time (sonic events if we’re talking about music, like we are today!). Counting (one way or another) is really the only way I know of to help you keep track of time and understand rhythm.

How to Count?

Out loud! Yes, it can be embarrassing to add your voice to music you are working on, but it’s so important because it will help you internalize the rhythms you are practicing and play the music more precisely and confidently in the future. Eventually, you won’t have to count out loud every time you learn new music, but many musicians I know (myself included) count out loud when they are practicing particularly difficult rhythms.

A former drum teacher of mine used to say: “Some people have perfect pitch. Nobody has perfect time.” It’s true, some people can tune a guitar completely by ear, and name every single note in a chord, but – while some people have better natural timing than others – timing is something that musicians can continually improve throughout their lives.

What is counting in music?

Counting is a way to mark the pulse and outline the rhythm: you’ll see in the examples below that we mark the pulse with numbers and the subdivisions of the pulse with other syllables. Sometimes using words and phrases to help count is fun and helpful – certainly childish, but there’s no shame in that.

The Pulse

The pulse (or meter) is the heartbeat of the song! It’s what you tap your toes too. In 4/4 music (or common time) we count “1, 2, 3, 4” in order to mark the four beats of a measure.

I tell my young students to count:

1, 2, 3, 4,
pear! pear! pear! pear!
1, 2, 3, 4

when they are first learning a quarter-note pulse.

Practice accenting every beat by itself in this pulse. Play a single note on your instrument (or pat your legs or clap your hands) while you count.

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4

1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4

Now try the same thing, but don’t play on the unaccented beats (just count them!). Next pick a few beats at random to accent. Try accenting two or three beats in a row, as well.

Eighth notes

Eighth notes flow through time exactly twice as fast as quarter notes (because they are half the duration). Keep the quarter note pulse count exactly the same tempo as before, but now add the syllable “and” between each beat:

1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and

I tell my young students to count:

1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and,
pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza
1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and

Practice accenting each “downbeat:”

1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and

And then practice accenting the “upbeat:”

1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and

Just like with the quarter notes, practice accenting every beat by itself in the pattern, as well as groups. Pick a random upbeat and try counting every eighth note, but only playing on that upbeat. Repeat that a few times, and then try creating patterns with both quarter notes and eighth notes, like this one:

1, and, 2, and, 3,     4,
pizza, pizza, pear, pear,
1, and, 2, and, 3,     4,
pizza, pizza, pear, pear

Sixteenth Notes

To count sixteenth notes keep the eighth note count, but add the syllable “e” before the “and” and “ah” after the “and:”

1, e, and, ah, 2, e, and, ah, 3, e, and, ah, 4, e, and, ah

I tell my young students to count:

1, e, and, ah, 2, e, and, ah, 3, e, and, ah, 4, e, and, ah
watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, watermelon
1, e, and, ah, 2, e, and, ah, 3, e, and, ah, 4, e, and, ah

Practice accenting all of the numbers (1, 2, 3, 4), then all of the “ands” and all of the “e”s and finally all of the “ah”s. Just like the other note values, be sure to practice playing each 16th note accented, as well as all by itself (while counting the others out loud).

Practice with a metronome

Make sure to play with a metronome, especially if you are working on music from the 80s to present times: the expectation of most modern genres is ultra-precise timing: often times musicians will even play to a metronome in their “in-ear” monitors on stage – this ensures everyone is “locked-in.”

Practice without a metronome

To develop a human feel it’s important to turn the metronome off. Milford Graves (legendary New York avant garde drummer) puts it best:

Record yourself playing

At first, pretty much no one likes to hear what they sound like playing drums in a recording. I think it’s similar to the fact that people generally don’t like what they sound like when they hear recordings of themselves speaking.

But it’s important to know what you sound like as a musician so that you can work to expand your sound. And recordings are a helpful tool to analyze your timing. Many times I have recorded myself playing, and after listening back I thought to myself “man, I was really rushing there!” or “Boy, was I dragging in the chorus!” – it has helped me smooth out my playing immensely over the years.
Thanks to Steven from Sunhouse for this guest post. 

Published by

Steven Zemanian

Steven is head of sound design at Sunhouse (, the makers of Sensory Percussion. He's loved music and has played drums since he was a child. He became passionate about music technology as a teenager and went on to get degrees in music production and music technology. One of his other passions is teaching drums, which he has been doing for many years.

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