Learning to count beats and their subdivisions is one of the initial requirements for rhythm design. Without a full understanding of how to count, it would be tricky to navigate various parts of a song and its structure.

Virtually every song has some kind of time marker or time reference. If a song doesn’t have a set time signature, at the very least it definitely has a beginning and an end. In this respect, time is truly the master of all music and rhythm.

So how does counting help you?

Counting allows you to communicate the timing aspects of a song to another person and vice versa. It increases your understanding of when each note or drum hit is sounded. As a result, it helps to improve the ability to express yourself and to listen; two critical items for creating quality tunes.

There are a few variations on how to count, but we’ll review a universal method used by many musicians.

Note that although you could use the numbers displayed on a step sequencer on a drum machine or audio software for counting (both shown below), using only numbers makes it confusing and difficult to communicate timing information to others.

The Roland TR-808 Step Sequencer

The Ableton Live grid

Instead of applying hard numbers for counting purposes, we’ll use a combination of syllables and numbers. As you’ll see in a moment, this makes it easier to verbalize the count and follow along with it.

Most popular music uses either duple or triple time (i.e. counting in sets of four or three respectively). The main idea is to become familiar in counting both of these time signatures. In this post, we will focus on counting in duple time and in an upcoming post, we’ll tackle triple time.

First begin with a count to four. And repeat the count four times (eg. 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4)


Nothing tricky so far. Here’s a challenge for you. Replace “1-2-3-4” with “1-EE-AN-UH”. These are the syllables that you’ll commonly hear and see when counting rhythms.


And when it’s time to repeat it four times, count as follows:


Congratulations! You’ve just learned to count in duple time (also know as 4/4 time). Currently, this is the most common time signature in music.

A popular analogy for the structure of a song is the structure of a building. It’s the frame that keeps the walls and floors together. A rhythmic time signature functions the same way. It defines the rhythmic feel of the song, and keeps all the instrument parts together.

Each window (or step) in the structure represents a moment in time and each moment has an important role to play. Although the structure appears rigid, there’s actually a lot of flexibility in the design and it allows for many possibilities.


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