I was taught to tap my foot when counting the notes, so an 8th note would become a tap to the ground, and a 4th note goes to the ground and back again. However I seem to get confused when encountering a group of complex notes. For instance I will lose my rhythm when playing an 8th (quaver) and a half note followed by two sixteenth notes (semiquaver), as my foot would need to go down to the ground then back to half it's original position then up and back at the middle. If I play on my own I will eventually master it by setting the tempo gradually, however I recently joined an orchestra and sometimes it's hard to be in sync with all the other guys.

I have also found that if I am tapping my hands or playing and become aware of myself counting the rhythm I will almost immediately make a mistake.

Some have told me to learn the melody and then intuitively play it, however my teacher has told me it is a bad practice.

I am an intermediate player

Is there a better way to count rhythm?

  • Please ask your teacher why it's bad practice. The ears are as important as the eyes. Not everything is written down.
    – Tim
    Aug 25, 2014 at 7:38
  • Though he was and no longer is my teacher, his reasoning was that by learning the melody you are then playing from memory and if the conductor or someone else introduces changes to the piece, like for instance: Changes in tempo, or you otherwise learn it erroneously you will have to relearn it and break out of the habit of playing the piece as you do, so you are much slower to respond to changes.
    – user13161
    Sep 14, 2014 at 14:53
  • Fair enough, except that I dep quite frequently, and have to play the same piece at different tempos with different bands, different arrangements - some to read, others to busk, and the response time has to be counted in nanoseconds. You can't go onto autopilot, you have to think on your feet. It ain't easy, but it certainly keeps you on your toes ! I guess the rhythm/tempo for a piece just has to get locked into yourself somehow, probably it's down to experience. And there's only one way to get that !!
    – Tim
    Sep 14, 2014 at 16:52
  • I agree with your teacher,. Anyone else you play with will likely be counting the notes exactly and your "intuitive" playing of the piece may not be right. Once you've committed it to muscle memory its hard to change to fit in with others. I have the same issue as you and the only solution that works for me is to play the part very slowly and exactly, carefully making sure timing is exactly right and without mistakes. Then speed it up gradually. Jul 12, 2019 at 8:06

3 Answers 3


The approach you are using now is to learn play the rhythm by seeing it visually. You can also come at the problem from the other direction: learn to play the rhythm by ear, then learn what that pattern looks like on the page. For me, the second approach is much, much easier for complex or off-beat rhythms.

  1. Find or make a recording of the challenging section. Your teacher should be able to help you with this. I often ask my teacher to play bits I’m struggling with, and record them on my phone. If she can tap out the beats loudly enough the be heard on the recording, it might make things easier.

  2. Put away the sheet music.

  3. Tap along to the recording. Tap out the main beats, not the actual rhythm being played.

  4. Now that you know where the beats are, start speaking along in the rhythm you’re trying to play. Just say da-da-da rather than trying to match the notes on the staff.

  5. At this point, the rhythm should be in your head. Take the sheet music back out, and see if you can play it. Try to match up the rhythm in your head to the rhythm on the page: that way, if you run into a rhythm like that again, you’ll know both what it looks like, and what it sounds like.

I’m not sure what you mean when you say “intuitively” play, but if you mean learning to play by listening, rather than reading, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that approach. It is an extremely valuable skill that will allow you to play a much larger body of music than if you limit yourself exclusively to sheet music. But being able to both read music and learn it by ear will give you more available music than either approach along. If you’re teacher is arguing against it, it is probably because she works in classical music, where reading sheet music is just as important as playing it. It’s worth learning to do well, because it’s a skill you can use in any genre, but in other types of music, techniques like this one are equally common, because learning by ear is given more importance.


Your teacher was right. You do have to count. It is essential because as the music becomes more complex or more parts are added your ear can deceive you. I hate to say it but until you can read without tapping you are probably going to have to put yourself in beginner mode. I'm intimately familiar with this because I played the cello for 20 years, played with amateur orchestras and sort of read music, but I didn't know how to count. I started over with beginner books. So, get a sight reading book. Clap the rhythm before you try playing it and count out loud. Follow the counting guide that Ely suggested. I have also found some useful youtube videos for counting. When I search on youtube I usually will type "dotted eighth sixteenth", something specific like that will give good results. Take your time with each exercise. It's difficult and should be treated like a riddle. Maybe you can crack the piece by starting on an easier measure just to get a feel for the rhythm and then go back to the top.


Count each beat with your mouth. In a 4/4 measure you would say 1 2 3 4. For eighths, add an and (+) in between, counting 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +. Then, add sixteenths. The second sixteenth is e and the fourth one is a, counting 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a. Triplets are 1 + a 2 + a etc. For more complex tuplets, find a word with that number of syllables (hippopotamus is a good one for 5-tuplets). Count with the smallest denomination for each beat, and clap on each subdivision that the note falls on. Always practice with a metronome. Most digital ones come with functions that will play the subdivisions for you. When you practice, always count out loud. Eventually you will get good enough to where you don't have to, but if you ever cannot figure out a rhythm, count out loud again. As with everything in music, the best thing you can do is go slowly and practice often.

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