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Master Counting Music With This Single Blog Post (And a Free Download)

how to count musicYou’re frustrated. You’re confused. How the heck do I count music? All these symbols, these values – how on Earth do you remember all of them and keep track of them all?

Believe it or not, the answer is remarkably simple and once you see it, you’ll wonder how you ever.

The beauty behind music and counting as a concept is that it is all patterns. And what’s even better is that once you’ve figured out the pattern, you’ve pretty much figured out the entire system!

In this post we’re going to tear the sheet off of the pattern of counting music and put you in the position to have that AHA! Moment with regards to counting music.

It’s Not Your Fault (Here’s Why)

Up until this point, you’re probably fed up with explanations of reading music that flat-out don’t make sense. Which is a shame, because from a technical standpoint, the information is immensely straight forward and doesn’t yield a lot of room for error.

Music is a simple game of basic math: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. We all remember that from high school (fondly or not).

Now, I’m not a math guy (far far from it), but math and music are pattern based. It’s often said that if you’re good at one, you can become good at the other, as they follow many of the same ideas and ways of thinking.

Up until this point, you’ve likely been presented with lots and lots of figures, little explanation and an attitude (written or spoken or otherwise) of “You know what I mean, right?”, where the person explaining

Therefore it is not your fault you don’t understand it. Counting simply hasn’t been explained to you in the right way.

I want this post to be the one that undoes the damage and sets you on the right path to reading music and getting back to what matters most: actually playing bass!

Counting 101

Upbeat and Downbeats:

Turn on your iTunes for a moment and turn on your favorite song.

Notice how your foot taps to the tempo, or speed or number of beats per minute. It goes up and down, up and down. Every time your foot hits the ground, you’re hitting the Downbeat, or what we think of as “counting”: 1 – 2 – 3 -4, 1-2-3-4…

Notice when your foot comes up. When your foot comes up, you’re counting the Upbeat or the “and” in: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…


Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 2.26.56 PM




Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 2.39.21 PM

What you’ve been counting this whole time were the eighth note and the quarter notes of the song by tapping your foot.

Now, notice:

1. That you really didn’t need to tell your body how to start tapping. It seemed to already know where the Downbeat was and as a result, the Upbeat as well.

2. The music keeps moving almost “around” that pulse. Your foot tapping doesn’t change with the other rhythms of the song. It stays constant while the song moves, rhythms intertwine with each other and music is created. Kind of like this image:


Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 2.34.15 PM


Remember how I said music was like math? This is what I’m talking about. But trust me – regardless of whatever scars you have from math in school, this math is much much easier. But the goal is all about seeing the pattern here.

subdividing notes

Off the bat, notice anything interesting?

You should see that as you move down the tree, it takes twice as many notes to equal the note value one row above on the tree.

Each note has their own duration of time and a rest that has an equal value. Here is a table to outline the note values from a whole note to a 16th note and how many it takes to equal the one above:

music note subdivision

Like I said above, for each of the notes above, there is a rest that covers the same duration of musical time.

counting rests

Nots can also have a dot attached to them. Dots add one half the note’s original value to the total note. Below is a table to illustrate the point:

counting dotted notes

Time Signature:

You’ve likely seen these before somewhere. You’ve likely asked yourself, what do they mean:

4/4 time signature

Shown above are time signatures. A time signature denotes how many beats per measure* there are and what beat get’s the Downbeat.

*a Measure is the distance between 2 bar lines.

The top number means how many beats there are in a given measure. Pictured above, numbers 2, 3 and 4 denote there are 2, 3 and 4 beats in a given measure respectively. The bottom number shows what gets the Downbeat aka what number gets counted as “1, 2, 3, 4”.


In the case of 4/4 time, the bottom “4” comes from the quarter note. A quarter note is 1/4th of a whole note an it takes 4 of them to make a whole note.

In a time signature like 6/8, the “8” comes from the eighth note which it takes 8 of them to make a whole note.

In 4/2 time, the “2” comes from the half note, which has a duration of 2 beats and it takes 2 of them to make a whole note.

Let’s look at it visually for a moment:

There are 2 half notes with a value of 2 beats a piece in 4/4 time. 2 + 2 = 4 beats.

4/4 time signature Now we have 4 quarter notes at a value of 1 beat a piece in 4/4 time. 1+1+1+1 = 4 beats

4/4 time signature


Lastly, we have 8 eighth notes with a value of half a beat in 4/4 time. .5+.5+.5+.5+.5+.5+.5+.5 = 4 beats

4/4 time signature

Here we have the same arrangement with 2/4 and 3/4 time.


3/4 time signature

3/4 time signature

3/4 time signature

and lastly with 2/4:

2/4 time signature

2/4 time signature

2/4 time signature

Time signatures that have a bottom number other than 4 can seem pretty daunting at first glance, but once you know what the pattern is, “odd time signatures” will no longer be any challenge to you.

Take 6/8 for example. Using what we know already:

1. What is the top number telling us? There are 6 eighth notes in a measure

2. What is the bottom number telling us? The eighth note gets the Downbeat (or counted as “1”)

Actually counting out X/8 time signatures can be different as well. Unlike 4/4 which we could count, 1, 2, 3, 4… or 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and depending what is written, time signatures with ending in an 8 would be counted:

6/8 time signature


Because the “8” in 6/8 is indicating to us that the eighth note is getting the “1”.

If we take 7/8 as another example, we get this:

7/8 time signature

What’s interesting about time signatures that have a bottom number of 8 is that we can group the eighth notes in different ways and count them accordingly.

When experimenting with different groupings, it is important that your grouping equals the top number of the time signature.

Common groupings for 7/8 include:

counting 7/8

counting 7/8

Try counting these out for yourself aloud. Make note of what you observe when you count. That’s because each of these groupings could also be shown like this:

counting 7/8

counting 7/8


Because we know that there are 2 eighth notes in a quarter note (12 or 1 and or 1 +) and 3 eighth notes in a dotted quarter note (123 or 1 and 2 or 1 + 2)

Starting to see a pattern emerge?

The sum of the note values must equal the TOP number in the time signature. HOW and WHAT notes get the Downbeat or accented naturally is denoted with the BOTTOM number.



I want to hear your thoughts on this! Drop me a line at mike@smartbassguitar.com and tell me your thoughts about the article and downloadable.

Also – stay tuned for Counting 102 in the upcoming weeks if you liked this. I’ll be going over odd time signatures and have downloadable exercise book for FREE!




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