How To Count Rhythms

This page offers an explanation of 4/4 and 6/8 drum beats in popular music styles, and how to count them. This applies to rock, pop, blues, country, bluegrass, reggae – anything you’re likely to hear on a commercial radio station.

Imitating Rhythms You Hear  

The average person on the street has a pretty good sense of rhythm. Many non-musicians can reproduce complex rhythms after hearing them only a few times.

Not all of my students are good at counting rhythms, but all of my students have learned to imitate rhythms by ear. As long as you can imitate rhythms you hear, you don’t have to know anything about meter or counting rhythms to play music.

Why Learn To Count

If you really want to understand music, you need to get learn to count rhythms. If you want to Communicate musical ideas with other musicians, then it really helps to understand the basics of rhythm and meter. Counting is also important if you want to get good at reading music. Learn to count before you learn to read. Counting isn’t hard if you take it slowly. Take some time to work it into your thinking.

After a little practice, you can completely dissect the rhythm of songs by ear. You don’t need any written notes, you can do it completely in your head. But it takes a while to get good at.

Dividing Rhythms Into ‘3’ or ‘4’

Most rhythms you hear in popular music can be counted as either ‘1 – 2 – 3’ or as ‘1 – 2 – 3 – 4.’ Some songs are counted in 6 or 12. A three-count is a waltz beat. Four-counts are much more common than three-counts, and probably make up about 80% of meters in popular songs.

The 4/4 Rock Beat

Most rock and country music is based on the ‘4/4 rock beat.’ Almost everyone has heard a song that starts off with someone counting out ‘one, two, three, four,’ at the start of the song.

There are several minor variations on this beat, but they are based on a very simple formula.  For examples of the 4/4 rock beat, go to the Drum Tracks page.

The standard 4/4 rock beat looks like this:

The Bass drum plays on beats one and three. The snare drum plays on beats two and four. Usually, there is a higher-pitched percussion voice like a high-hat, ride cymbal or shaker that subdivides each of the four beats.

The simplest subdivision is by two. (eighth notes)

In the diagram below, ‘CH’ represents the closed high-hat. The closed high-hat makes a short, stacatto sound similar to a shaker or an ‘egg.’

The four main beats, covered by the bass and snare, are called ‘quarter beats.’ The eight shorter beats covered by the high-hat are called ‘eighth-beats.’

Learning to count means dividing rhythms into quarter, eighth, and smaller beats.

Triple Meters

A song with a strong ‘1 – 2 – 3’ pulse is called a ‘waltz,’ and is becoming rare, except in country, folk and bluegrass styles. The most common triple meters you see in rock, jazz and blues are ‘six-eight’ (6/8) and ‘twelve-eight’ (12/8). The second set of tracks on the Drum Tracks Page are in 6/8 time.

The Standard 6/8 Beat looks like this:

A fast 6/8 is usually counted as 12/8. The difference between 6/8 and 12/8 can be arbitrary. Many pieces can be counted comfortably in either 6 or 12.

Most people can snap their fingers, or drum with their hands in time with almost any rhythm. That means you don’t need to ‘count’ or have any knowledge of music theory to hear a rhythm and imitate it.

First, decide whether the basic pulse is in ‘3’ or ‘4.’ There isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to count rhythms. There are all sorts of ways to count repeating rhythm patterns in music.

Listen to the Drummer

The drummer is the main time-keeper in a rock band. Learn to recognize three basic drum sounds: the bass drum, the snare drum and the high-hat. If you’re not sure what these sound like, play a drum kit or a drum machine. Or you can watch a drummer at a live concert.

Develop Concentration

When you listen to the radio, try to lock into the main pulse, and count it through an entire song. Just count to yourself ‘1 – 2 – 3 – 4’ over and over until the end of the song. The hardest part is concentrating on the count for 3 to 5 minutes straight.

‘Eighth notes’ in 6/8 & 12/8 This is an example of confusing music terminology: the six individual beats are called ‘eighth’ notes, even though they divide the measure into six or 12 parts depending. For example, in 6/8 time, it takes six beats to complete a measure.


How to Count Rhythms

© 2002 Greg Varhaug