Counting-Out Rhythms In Sheet-Music

In this tutorial, we will learn to play rhythms in sheet-music music accurately, by counting-out the notes.

An Easier Way To Get The Rhythm Right

Before launching in how to count-out the rhythms in sheet-music, be aware that there is an easier way to get the rhythms right – especially for the music in the KMK Songbook.

The easy way, is to play the tune (from the music) along with the same music playing in an audio player, or the MIDI Player/Recorder.

All of the pieces in the KMK Songbook have (in addition to the sheet-music in a PDF file), a MIDI file of the music (which can be played using the MIDI Player/Recorder), and an audio (MP3) file, which can be played in an audio player.

If you use the MIDI Player/Recorder, you can easily slow-down the playback, making it easier to keep up with the music as you play-along with it.

For music not in the KMK Songbook, you can still play a recording of the music using an audio player, and play-along with that, using the KeyMusician Keyboard.

If you're not familiar with using the MIDI Player/Recorder, click on (select) the following link to learn how to use it:

How To Use The Integrated MIDI-Player

Whether you play along with an audio file, or a MIDI file, it's a good idea to choose an instrument sound played on the KeyMusician Keyboard that contrasts somewhat from the instrument used in the tune being played by the player. That way, it's easier to distinguish the notes you play from the notes played in the recorded music.

When you play-along with the recorded music, try to match your playing with the music coming from the player.

As you do this over-and-over again, you will get the rhythm perfect, and it's easier than counting-out the rhythm in the sheet-music.

Of course, this method only works if you have a recording of the piece you're trying to play, or if you're playing along with someone playing (or singing) the piece at the same time.

But in cases where you don't know what the music sounds like, and you don't have a recording (or a person who can play or sing it along with you), the only way to learn the piece of music in printed (sheet-music) form, is to count-out the rhythm of the notes.

How To Count-Out The Notes

There is a trick to counting-out the notes. If you were in school band, you probably learned it. If you've only seen a band or orchestra playing in a concert, you may have seen a clue of what to do.

In watching a band play in a concert, have you noticed the players tapping their feet to the beat of the music? At least, you saw the conductor waving his hand, visually giving the musicians the beat of the music.

The rhythm of music is controlled by a sort of musical clock, and that clock can run at different speeds. The beat of the music is the tick of that musical clock.

At the beginning of the piece, the speed of the clock is specified in something called a “Time-Signature”, which looks like a fraction, such as in the following screen-shot:

Picture of the beginning of a musical staff line, showing the tempo as 'Slow'.
The “4” over the other “4” (like the fraction 4/4), is the time-signature used at the beginning of the piece. The top number tells you how many beats are in a measure (the end of a measure is marked by a vertical line spanning the 5 horizontal lines of the staff), and the bottom number tells you what type of note gets one beat.

In the example above, there are 4 beats in a measure, and a quarter-note (as in the fraction ¼), gets one beat.

There is one other piece of information in the time-signature. Do you notice the word “Slow” above the staff? That word tells you how fast the 'clock' (giving beats to the music) is to run.

Instead of “Slow” you might see an Italian word, such as “Largo” (which means slow). There are a number of Italian words you learn, which mean certain speeds. For example, “Andante” means a walking-tempo, and we sort of know how fast we take steps when we walk.

That probably seems somewhat imprecise, and it is. Fortunately, you will often see another piece of information in the time-signature, such as something like the following:

Picture of the tempo marking of quarter-note equals 75.
This marking indicates that the musical 'clock' runs at a speed such that there are 75 quarter-notes per minute, which is a bit more precise. If a quarter-note gets one beat (as in the time signature above), then there are 75 beats per minute.

You can set a metronome (a sort of musical-time 'clicker') to the specified time, and hear it beat out the beats of the music.

Here are the common Italian words used in music to specify speed (tempo), along with their meanings:

Note: By adding an -issimo ending, the word is amplified. By adding an -ino or -etto ending, the word is diminished. The beats per minute (bpm) values are rough approximations.

From slowest to fastest:

Have you noticed musicians in a band or orchestra tapping their feet? They are tapping the beats of the musical 'clock' currently running in the music. It helps them keep track of the beats of the music, and they steadily tap their feet at the rate of that musical 'clock'.

The notes in the music, no matter how short (fast), or long, are according to the beats of the music. That is the speed of the music, and if there are a lot of short notes to play, which might be difficult at that speed, you have to play them relative to the current speed of the music anyway – no matter how difficult it may be.

The spacing-out of notes in the printed page of music has nothing to do with the length of the notes. The time-signature tells you the speed. The speed remains the same until it is changed by another time-signature, or by a marking that tells you to temporarily change the speed.

So now we know about the musical 'clock' of the time-signature, and about the trick of tapping your toes to the beat of the music. So we're off to a good start. But there are a lot of tricks to learn, which can help you count-out the notes in a piece of music.

The Exercise Explained

Before we get into the exercise, here is a screen-shot of the exercise sheet-music, with text-callout boxes explaining what's in it:

Screen-shot of the music counting exercise, with helpful annotation.
Notice that notes can either have bars connecting their stems (the 'tail' going up (or down) from the round part of the note), or flags on their stems. It doesn't matter which – they mean the same thing. The number of bars or flags on the stem indicates the duration of the note:

Rests (starting with the eighth-note rest) can also have flags on their stem-part, with the same meaning as with notes.

Starting with eighth-notes in the exercise, I put dots under the notes. These dots indicate the notes are played with distinct separation (rather than smoothly, blending together). This is called staccato phrasing.

I did this so you can hear the distinct, repeated short notes.

Dots under the notes indicate staccato phrasing:

Picture of stacatto notes, in music notation.

This is very different from having a dot to the right side of the note, which indicates a dotted-note:

Picture showing dotted notes, and double-dotted notes, in music notation.
One dot means one-and-a-half times the length of the note. Two dots means one-and-a-half, and a half-of-a-half times the length of the note.

The Music Counting Exercise

Here is a piece of sheet-music of an exercise to teach you the basics of counting out musical rhythm:

The music counting exercise sheet-music, with lyrics showing how to count out the rhythm.
In this exercise, we count out whole-notes, half-notes, quarter-notes, eighth-notes, eighth-note-triplets, and sixteenth-notes. The numbers and words below the musical staff-lines, are what we think in our minds in counting-out the notes of the music.

Counting numbers start over again at 1 at the beginning of each measure.

In the counting-lyrics, when more than one counting-syllable is connected with a comma (such as in “3,4”, those syllables all apply to the same note (or rest), whose length is specified by those syllables added together.

Words and numbers surrounded by parentheses (such as “(3,4)”, or “(and a)” are thought in your mind, but not sounded, since they specify the duration of a “rest” (space of silence), as opposed to notes, which are sounded.

Think of the information below the staff-lines as the lyrics of a song we think in our minds (but don't sing). Here is the key to how you pronounce (in your mind) the lyrics:

Lyrics: 1 e and a 2 e and a

Means: one-eee-and-uh-two-eee-and-uh

Download the audio (MP3) file below, by right-clicking on the link, then choosing “Save Link As” (or whatever similar phrase your Internet browser presents for downloading a file) in the pop-up menu.

Music Counting Exercise Audio File

(You could click on the link to listen to it, but then you wouldn't be able to follow along in the music at the same time.)

Then use your file browser to browse to where you downloaded it (such as your Downloads folder), then right-click on the “CountingExercise.mp3” file, and choose to play it with your audio player. Click back to your Internet browser window, and follow along with the music above, saying in your mind the counting 'lyrics' as it plays.

Play it, and follow-along with its lyrics several times, until you feel you have the hang of it.

If you would like the MIDI file of the exercise (which you can play in the MIDI Player/Recorder of the KeyMusician Keyboard), right-click on the link below (selecting “Save Link As”) from the pop-up menu:

Music Counting Exercise MIDI File

The 'lyrics' you got used to thinking in your mind in the exercise above, are the key to counting-out the notes in actual pieces of music.

Here is the sheet-music of a piece of music in the KMK Songbook.

You may know this song from its “you'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road” lyrics.

We have added counting lyrics to it, to help you count-out the notes:

Picture of the Loch Lomond sheet music, with lyrics showing how to count-out the rhythm.
As with the Music Counting Exercise you did above, download the audio (MP3) file (and/or MIDI file) by right-clicking on the link (or links) below, and choosing “Save Link As” from the pop-up menu:

Counting Loch Lomond Audio File             Counting Loch Lomond MIDI File

As you did with the prior “Music Counting Exercise”, play the piece with your player, clicking back to your Internet browser window, so you can follow-along with the music above, thinking in your mind the “Counting” lyrics lines.

Do it several times, until you know how to think the counting-syllables along with the music.

Notice in the 2nd measure, how the dotted eighth-note (which is one-and-a-half eighth-notes), is counted-out using the counting for sixteenth-notes. This is necessary to get the correct length of the dotted eighth-note and the following sixteenth-note.

This counting is used in the piece wherever there is a dotted eighth-note followed by a sixteenth-note.

Choosing the type of counting syllables to use is like finding the least-common-denominator in fractions (which probably wasn't your favorite thing in grade-school, but here is a useful skill).

We have here a sixteenth-note, and a dotted eighth-note (which is the length of three sixteenth-notes), so the counting syllables in-common with both notes is the counting for sixteenth-notes.

A similar thing happens in the first measure of the 2nd line (the “and,4” lyric), where eighth-note counting is used for a quarter-note that doesn't fall on what would be the normal beat of the measure.

Also, in the first measure of the 3rd line, sixteenth-note counting is used for the initial sixteenth-note and the following dotted eighth-note.

Here is another piece of sheet-music from the KMK Songbook. We again have added counting lyrics to it, so you can count-out the notes.

This piece is different from the other two, because it is in 6/8 time (the time-signature), which means that an eighth-note gets one beat, and there are 6 beats in a measure:

Picture of the Nessun Dorma sheet music, with lyrics showing how to count-out the rhythm.
Notice that the eighth-notes get a single number count (since they each get one beat). Another thing to watch out for, is the eighth-note-triplet, pointed-out below:

Picture of a tricky part of Nessun Dorma, with lyrics showing how to count-out the rhythm.
The tricky thing about this, is the eighth-note-triplet uses up the same amount of musical-time as two ordinary eighth-notes (which would be counted as “5 6”), but the triplet is counted as “5 and a” (so the “6” that would normally be there, doesn't appear).

As with the “Counting Loch Lomond” exercise you did above, download the audio (MP3) file (and/or MIDI file) by right-clicking on the link (or links) below, and choosing “Save Link As” from the pop-up menu:

Counting Nessun Dorma Audio File             Counting Nessun Dorma MIDI File

As you did with the prior “Music Counting Exercise”, play the piece with your player, clicking back to your Internet browser window, so you can follow-along with the music above, thinking in your mind the “Counting” lyrics lines.

Do it several times, until you know how to think the counting-syllables along with the music.

Congratulations! You've made it through the most difficult part of learning to play from sheet-music.

Hopefully it will help you to be able to play tunes from sheet-music that you are totally unfamiliar with, or have never heard before.

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