When I started as a beginner on the piano I just timed the notes by feeling. That is, until my teacher played back a recording of me to show me just how messed up my timings were. Since then I've always been very diligent about figuring out the formal beat counting pattern and reciting it mentally as I play. That went well for a while of course, but gradually the music got more complex, with irregular beats, ties, syncopation, different timings for left and right etc. A lot of the music I look at now have timings that are so complex I have a hard time reciting them, even mentally. Is there even a way to count thirty-seconds?

What do the pros do? Should I continue mentally singing the timings even if it seems to make things more difficult? Is counting the beats an absolutely necessary step in learning a new piece? Or is it just for beginners to use until they've internalized the timings?

Or do you use some kind of mixed approach where you count the slow beats and leave the faster and off-beat ones to "feel"?

  • This question was also similar in aspect to this one. check out the answer music.stackexchange.com/questions/23143/counting-while-playing Nov 15, 2014 at 13:42
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    Helpful trick (may or may not work for you): while learning a passage, sans metronome, I make the downbeat with my foot/toes, but bring the foot back up on the smallest current subdivision, i.e. sixteenth note for quads or eighth for triplets. Nov 15, 2014 at 16:06
  • Sometimes it's enough for me to image ticks, especially after few rounds with metronome. You should try it, I am horrible at playing so if I can do this, anyone can :) Nov 16, 2014 at 22:44
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    One very helpful technique I read somewhere is: when you learn a new piece, do it in 3 steps. Practice just the sequence of notes without regard to rythm; practice the exact timing of the notes without changing pitch; and finally play taking both into account. When you follow this "divide and conquer" method you'll find that in the end you'll have it much better.
    – nafg
    Nov 17, 2014 at 1:37

9 Answers 9


Counting is an absolutely necessary step when learning a new piece.It is the rhythmic framework of any piece. Without it, you may well be playing a different tune. 'All the right notes, but not in the right timing'.

You ask 'do they count all the time?' Well there's no need once a piece is well known to the player. We sound out words as kids, but eventually we learn to recognise the shapes of bigger words, and reading dots is similar. The rhythm pattern of a set of dots becomes known, not in every case, but patterns emerge and are remembered. We don't count the dots on a die - we recognise their pattern.

Playing with pros, looking at a new tune, often I'll hear 'Heads down and count like Hell !' muttered. Makes good sense. After all, how else is a tune going to be played successfully first time if the rhythm is ragged?

Yes, there are tricky rhythmic patterns that have to be played, and it depends how good at playing/reading someone is, but a basic, simple answer to your question is a resounding OF COURSE !! But - the header question is different - there's no need to do that once you're inside the piece. An internal clock takes over (or should !) Either foot tapping, head nodding, shoulder shrugging, whatever, it ought to be making the player into a human metronome. Some can stay still, and do it mentally, but most good players will have some form of keeping time bodily.

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    Actually, my flute teacher, who was also a professional player, told me that foot tapping or shoulder shrugging or anything too obvious/hearable is considered unprofessional. You don't want your orchestra wiggling or tapping. But apparently wiggling your big toe ist ok ;) Nov 15, 2014 at 22:00
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    @Sumyrda - it's probably protocol in a 'classical' orchestra. In big bands and others playing 'less serious' music, it's almost expected.
    – Tim
    Nov 16, 2014 at 8:30
  • Ha ha - yes, interesting to see you both discussing this! Tapping or nodding are definitely more or less appropriate in different contexts. I always feel more comfortable keeping the beat somewhere, but ever since being "told-off" about 20 years ago for tapping my foot during a recording session, I try to tap my toe inside my shoe... Nov 16, 2014 at 21:43
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    One of the first times that Duke Ellington recorded a group playing his music, he made them re-play the song because they weren't tapping their toes - I guess you can't play jazz without it!
    – Greg d'Eon
    Nov 16, 2014 at 22:33

As you beginner, I strongly suggest you keep doing that. What I did when I first begun, was to count everything with my foot. After a while, I didn't really need to count every single thing with the foot, because I could hear/feel it in me.

So, no, I don't think pro musicians count every little thing, but they can if you ask them to.

Is counting the beats an absolutely necessary step in learning a new piece?

Do it; it won't harm you in any way -- that's for sure. It will help you understand rhythms much better and it will help you with the recording someday.

Or is it just for beginners to use until they've internalized the timings?

As you progress in your playing, you'll see that you won't need to be so thorought about this, and it will come naturally to you without much (or any) thinking.

Or do you use some kind of mixed approach where you count the slow beats and leave the faster and off-beat ones to "feel"?

That can work as well, but I (personally) never feel 100% sure for something that I cannot count and work just by feel. I have worked just with my feel, but better to be safe than sorry, I always try to count the things I play.

Is there even a way to count thirty-seconds?

Yes. Similar to the way you would count eighths or something. In the eighths you counr 1-2 on each beat, on sixteenths 1-2-3-4 on every beat and on thirty-seconds you count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 on every beat.

In order to get used to that you have to be really good with sixteenths.


This is much like: when you drive a car, do you think about the steering all the time?

When you learn to drive, you will be consciously thinking about your steering. Similarly, an experienced driver on an unfamiliar road will be consciously thinking about it. An experienced driver on a familiar road will probably not be consciously considering their steering — but this is only because they know it well enough that some part of their subconscious is thinking about it without conscious control.

It’s the same with the meter in music. You don’t need to be always consciously counting. But if you aren’t, it should be because you are so familiar with the territory that a little part of your brain is counting in the background all the time.

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    Interesting analogy. It got me thinking. There are lots of moves I've internalized when driving, like flipping the indicator, changing gears, looking before turning etc. They all took a conscious effort to do when I started off, but now they come automatically to the point where you can't even remember that you done them ("Oh, I'm already in fourth gear")
    – W4uoe9A
    Nov 16, 2014 at 15:33
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    Interesting analogy. There are lots of moves I've internalized for driving, like changing gears, look before turning etc. They all took a conscious effort to do when I started but now they come automatically to the point where I can't even remember if I've done them ("Oh, I'm already in 4th gear"). But if you have to start counting again whenever you try to play a new piece of music that would be like having to remember to change gears just because you're on a new road. An experienced driver wouldn't normally been thrown off by something like that. Is it the same for experienced musicians?
    – W4uoe9A
    Nov 16, 2014 at 15:53
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    @PLL +1 for the analogy. We're happier in 4/4 than 5/4 because we've used it a million times more. We can relax (a bit) about it, but still need to be aware of what may be coming round the corner, though.Maybe that's why so many signal left/right even when there's no-one to tell?
    – Tim
    Nov 16, 2014 at 16:43
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    I always thought driving and playing music correlate very well. Unfortunately in music you are rewarded for pushing the limits of ability; while in a car, you are punished quite severely ;p Nov 16, 2014 at 19:22
  • Yes! Eventually you get to the point where you won't have to consciously think about the timing/rhythm/meter unless the song/piece/tune is particularly complex/challenging.
    – race_carr
    Nov 17, 2014 at 4:36

If you have trouble with counting meter, you might want to try a rhythm solfege method like Takadimi or the Kodaly Method.

I played with an Indian tabla player for a couple of years and found tabla rhthym solfege to be superior to the Western "1-e-and-a" counting for me in performance, possibly because I block on numbers (can't remember phone numbers) but am very verbal.

You might want try one of these three alternatives.

For complex meters, I break them up into groups of twos with the syllables "Taki" and groups of threes with the syllables "Takita". For some reason, it's easier for me to solo over "Taki taki takita" than "12 12 123."


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    This was a great tip for me, thanks. I'll say that it still helps to count with numbers when listening and getting a feel for a new song, but while playing this taki takita idea is really nice.
    – grinch
    Oct 27, 2017 at 4:00

Agreed. Counting is necessary until you have internalised the time.

Improvising in 7 is fine as long as you've spent enough time getting used to this number of beats. It would be difficult in the extreme to improvise well and be counting at the same time.

  • What's up with the voters today? +1 to everyone from me, even to you – though, frankly, your answer is a bit on the short side: generally on StackExchange, when a question already has multiple answers, adding a new one is discouraged unless you have something substantial to add. If you merely agree with an existing answer, well, upvote! — At any rate, welcome to Music.SE. Nov 15, 2014 at 18:11
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    With 7 time, it's usually split 2-2-3, 4-3 or 3-4, so counting, whilst paramount, isn't too difficult, and after a while, becomes second nature. Even something like a Greek 13/4 isn't mind blowing when split into 123,223,323,4234. But it sure as Hell needs counting !!
    – Tim
    Nov 15, 2014 at 18:22

Pros don't count everything off, and there would be no time for it, either. One example you can't count is playing things like 4 notes against 3 notes (the "pass the goddamn butter" pattern). If you wanted to count that off, you'd need to count it as 4 notes of 3 blips length each against 3 notes of 4 blips length each, for a total of 12 blips. You can't count those.

The main problem with counting off everything is that you lose the accents of the music. When first learning a piece in a multi-person setting, it is not unusual to count off, say, 2/2 in 4 beats. When all parts and their relations have registered, then one can count in halves again. Or depending on the music, even in whole measures.

When playing fast passages and runs, the exact timing of every note is usually not as important as having the accented notes right on cue.

Most of the time, anything but really complex rhythms can be read off the score right away by musicians. Many professionals are excellent sight readers. The main skill is to develop an eye for how the notes relate to the main stresses in the music. Coming in half a beat early is something which one can manage pretty well without having to acually count half beats.

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    I disagree: "pros," and us advanced amateurs, may not actively count out the beats, but you can be damned sure we are aware of the beats and subdivisions at some level at all times. Percussionists (gosh :-) ) are best at this. And BTW, the exact timing of notes in runs damn well is important. Try ignoring it and your conductor (or accompanist) will run you out of the county. Nov 15, 2014 at 16:04
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    As a percussionist.. Carl is right
    – cutrightjm
    Nov 15, 2014 at 17:09
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    As a percussionist [sometimes]... I just nod my head a bit in the difficult bits, to hold it all together. [my excuse is "I'm getting into it" ;-)
    – Tetsujin
    Nov 15, 2014 at 18:56
  • "accented notes right on cue" is the music, +1. I don't think we percussionists should be answering this question. After all it's our job to keep time. However, that doesn't mean we ever 'count' anything either.
    – Mazura
    Nov 16, 2014 at 3:47
  • @Mazura - I bet you like to be counted in at the start though !! What's wrong with Ready, steady - GO.
    – Tim
    Nov 16, 2014 at 16:37

Practice and rehears over and over until it becomes second nature, I guess. I play guitar and when I started with music I was extremely bad in keeping rhythm, I couldn't even simply tap along with music. It was depressing. Somehow I picked it up over the years and now it is fairly acceptable. Rhythm/timing is an important part of music, wrong rhythm/timing basically changes a piece of music into something different that doesn't sound right, even if the notes/chords are OK. As you learn to play music you also learn to listen imho, very important.

I wish I could play classical music on the piano but I simply don't have the skills to 'copy-paste' a composition. I cannot play real time from notation either.


As a classically trained keyboardist composing songs for soul/funk bands, I am most often am using a 4-4 meter with even numbers of measures leading to changes in parts. Defining the 1, has been a particularly difficult problem to solve for other band members who just feel the groove of the tune differently and are not proficient sight readers. They are feeling a different song completely and it frustrates the living hell out of me. When I want to go to the change, they are not ready or want to change early. All I want is for them to feel the 1 as it has been composed, NOT "redefine the 1" in a way that makes they way they initially felt the groove "feel right" . It shouldn't be that hard for any trained musician to redefine the groove by counting. When they do, then there is a moment of enlightenment where they say "WOW!, I was totally feeling it differently! But NOW I get it!" Working with an untrained musician who does not understand the importance of counting and refuses to define the 1 as composed, is like beating your head against a brick wall.

So, YES! Count until you unequivocally know where the 1 is! If somebody is saying "You aren't feeling the 1", YOU AREN'T. END OF STORY. So, learn to read music, charts or sheet music if you cannot, whatever helps you understand where that 1 lies. If this is a problem you face, you will not progress until it is solved. And you will drive a lot of other musicians completely crazy. Once you are feeling the 1, (and with a ton of practice) the counting part will just become second nature. But ALWAYS count learning a new piece. PLEASE. Having friends as band mates might put up with this kind of problem. Any large orchestrator, recording studio producer, or performing professional, WILL NOT.

  • This feels like a rant, and doesn't seem to add anything new that other answerers have already posted.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 10, 2015 at 14:04
  • @DrMayhem - there's a certain resonance here for me. Playing with people who can't even feel the one? If they can't get that far, they're hardly going to count the smaller parts! I've played with them, and I guess you have too. Not easy, and underlines the importance of counting - as the question - so it's more than a rant. O.k it's a rantswer!!
    – Tim
    Mar 1, 2018 at 16:03
  • This answer was very helpful for me. I've just started playing with a metronome and I am often missing the 1. This clears up that finding the 1 can be trained.
    – quark
    Jan 28, 2019 at 2:19
  • @quark - a metronome with a ping available on beat one is a very useful tool. Don't always need to use it, but it's there when needed.
    – Tim
    Dec 5, 2019 at 9:12

Mixed. If you 'just feel' the beat, you're lucky. But it's also worth checking with a metronome occasionally - bad habits are easy to acquire! As experience grows, our repertoire of patterns grows. We read and play in the same way as a fluent reader reads a book - scanning phrases and sentences rather than spelling out 'c-a-t'. But even then, sometimes it's good to go back to the detail. Also, modern composers delight in challanging us with new, complex rhythms. It's very common to see a part (even in professional circles) with pencilled slashes indicating where the beats come.

It can be amusing to be part of an ensemble or orchestra when, at a certain tricky moment EVERYONE starts tapping their feet!

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