I am trained as a classical musician. I'm fast at reading standard notation, counting rests, all of that. Recently I played bass for a children's folk dance event. The music was mostly European dances, longways set to jigs and reels, and so on.

The form of the dances was simple; most were played AABB. Nothing unexpected. We had to play each dance a specific number of times so that the dance would end when the kids practiced, or so that each couple would be able to perform each "lead couple" role in the dance. This required us to play each form 5 or 6 times, sometimes more, including any repeats within the form.

I struggled with this and was forever losing count! I'd find myself happily playing along, and then wondering if I'd played four times already or only three. Is this simply something more experienced players have learned to keep track of, or is there a special technique?

  • 5
    Committee agreement… when everyone starts looking at each other & nodding. Becomes less accurate the longer the bar's been open. ;)
    – Tetsujin
    May 26 at 11:05
  • 3
    Keep track of where the first lead couple is. When they're just about to reach the lead couple position again, you're ready to stop.
    – phoog
    May 26 at 11:40
  • @phoog that should be an answer, not a comment, as it pretty much perfectly answers the question. Incidentally nuggethead what you've referred to as a 'form' is more usually called a 'tune'. Play for more dancing and you'll get used to it! May 27 at 12:37

1 Answer 1


I've played a lot of contra dance music, which is a form of folk music for folk dances.

I'm guessing you don't have 32 bars divided into two parts composed of two 8-bar chunks drilled into your brain, which is the pop and folk music standard for the length of a tune. So play along with recordings until you understand intuitively how long a 32-bar piece is.

You say you're playing along, but I guess you're just reading the sheet music. Listen to the other players; they know where they are, both the lead and the rhythm players. Play a couple of chord tones or stop playing when you think you're playing the first bar until it's confirmed by listening to what the other players are doing.

Finally, look at the dancers and see what they're doing at the beginning of the first A and the first B.

So, it's the usual for folk musicians: learn, listen, look.

  • I think this answers a different question - I don't have a problem following 8-bar chunks. that's been drilled into my brain and I could feel my way through that no problem. My trouble was remembering how many times I was supposed to play the whole form.
    – nuggethead
    May 26 at 17:05
  • @nuggethead In other words, lol, it's a lot like how symphony musicians "count" multiple repeated measures—stop when others stop. May 26 at 17:29

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