I've been learning how to sight read the traditional way, by counting. Unfortunately, if there's ever a rest that less than a eighth rest, I automatically get thrown off, mostly because I'm only counting the parts that I play in, not the parts that I don't. However, I've been doing this thing lately where I just kind memorize the rhythm patterns, and rely on intuition rather than actually counting (for example, taking in a breath whenever I come across an eighth note rest) My question is, is this a good approach or should I still just try counting? I've had more success with intuition than straight up counting, but that could just be because I'm missing something.

Thanks in advance,

Wow, I didn't expect to get this kind or response, its also a bit embarrassing because of the stuff some people pointed out, so yeah, its obvious I still have a long way to go.

I've learned quite a bit from reading through the responses, and I'm going to try to improve my practicing from now on. Thanks everyone, and sorry for any confusion.

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    "... I automatically get thrown off, mostly because ..." Old joke: "Doctor, it hurts when I do this!". "Well, stop doing it then!" If you don't count correctly, then obviously you will be thrown off. So what's the real question? If it's "is counting correctly better than just guessing", the answer is pretty obvious...
    – user19146
    Mar 1, 2017 at 23:08
  • Have you tried the standard "One-and," "One-Eee-and" , "One-ee-and-ahh" methods for tracking subdivided beats? Mar 2, 2017 at 12:31
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    I'm not sure what you mean by "I'm only counting the parts that I play in." It sounds like most people here are interpreting that to mean that you're not counting rests at all, but if that were the case it seems you'd be more confused by long rests, not short ones. Also, failing to count rests seems like a pretty basic mistake, and one that you'd correct once you realize you're doing it (no offense if that's what you're actually doing--it is also a pretty common mistake). Mar 2, 2017 at 17:42
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    You may be interested in this video about how classical musicians tend to take an analytical approach (counting and "reacting") whereas jazz and other non-classical musicians "feel" rhythm: youtu.be/rEbUNDW9bDA Mar 2, 2017 at 17:47
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    Not enough for an answer, but I have had several situations in my upper level college choir (Emmy Award winning), where every person in the choir assumed the rhythm when practicing and had to fix it later in group practice. It took weeks to fix what would have taken a week or less to learn properly. But since everyone had used their intuition, they got the wrong rhythm stuck in their head. Moral: Always count, no matter how good you get, when you are sight reading anything. Some composers will do things that you would do differently, and suddenly your intuition is just wrong. Mar 2, 2017 at 17:54

11 Answers 11


Every system of rhythmic instruction comes down to two basic things: some form of counting system, and some form of "learned intuition" or "muscle memory".

When we first start to learn rhythm, we might be banging a stick on a block or clapping our hands...1...2...3...4. After a while, our brain starts to remember the pattern and we don't really need to count anymore. But when we encounter a new rhythm, we don't have any "stored" memory of that new pattern. As you get better, you'll build up a "library" of stored patterns, so that you can just glance at a few bars of rhythm and you'll be able to spit it out without so much as a thought. It becomes a series of stored patterns in your brain that no longer require conscious thought. (think - do you have to consciously measure the speed and distance and timing to get a spoon to your mouth? - when you were a baby, you did, but now it's automatic). But it takes time!

So your question comes down more to: what do you do RIGHT NOW that might help you on your rhythmic journey. A few people have pointed to subdivision. That's super important and a MUST if you want to understand what's happening in between notes. Subdivision is simply tapping or thinking about each note in double time or quadruple time to help keep your notes even or accurate. You can use numbers or sounds when counting. "ta" for quarter notes, "ti ti" for eights and "tiri tiri" for sixteenth notes can be helpful for some. You can clap your hands on the quarter notes and say the subdivision. So you might be clapping 1, 2, 3, 4, but say Ti ti, ti ti, ti ti, ti ti along with each clap or tap. Saying "one AND two AND three AND four AND" (where and represents the other half of the quarter note) is a good way of subdividing with just your voice. You can help yourself of course by clapping the quarters. It might feel like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at first, but this isn't a "child's game". Anyone of any skill level can benefit by practicing and changing up how they learn and rehearse rhythm.

An important thing to improve rhythm is to simply practice...with a metronome. As a start, try putting the metronome (or metronome app) to a reasonable tempo - say 60 beats per minute (60bpm). Clap along with the pulse or click. Then clap double-time (two claps per click). Then return to clapping with the click. Now switch it up. Say "ta" with each click, repeat for twenty to thirty clicks, followed by double-time "ta" with each click. (to change how you store the pattern - clapping and speaking are two different ways of storing the information - related - but still different!) If you're an instrumentalist, then try the same thing on the instrument. Now combine two ways of representing the pulse...clap and say "ta" or play and tap your foot or hand (along with the metronome). Then go into subdivision on one of your patterns, the clap or the voice - then switch it up.

Brain studies have shown that pattern retention is significantly improved when a "guide pattern" is used (the metronome) (, as opposed to just doing it yourself from the page. (Neuropsychology: Lewis et al, 2004) You can move from that to triplets or to quadruplets and to dotted rhythms. You can find many examples online - a quick search shows some free materials at practicesightreading.com. You shouldn't need to buy anything....pick up an old hymn book at a flea market and practice singing or clapping the rhythms (with a metronome!)

A very important thing to practice is consistent tempo (which is why we use the metronome) This is overlooked by so many people and one of the reasons why rhythm can be sloppy. We tend to sing or play in OUR version of the pulse (or tempo) instead of THE ACTUAL tempo. This can lead to rushing and a poorly learned rhythmic selection because it fails as soon as someone else is "steering the ship" - or changing the pulse when they deliberately speed up or slow down (read: conductor or drummer). Practicing with that metronome eliminates your need to track tempo as well and you can focus on getting the relative timing accurate.

One more thing that often gets overlooked: rhythm and tempo are very 'internal' things to us. But we are required to synchronize those pulses with other players, pianist, conductor,etc. The biggest way we synchronize as classical musicians is with the conductor or principal player (baton waving or head nodding+breathing together, respectively). These things are often visual cues....but we've been practicing our rhythms with auditory cues!! (Click click click....) So....incorporate into your practice some use of the metronome with a flashing lightand try and stay synchronized. This will significantly solidify your pattern learning.

Jazz musicians may "feel" the music but they all still count. They might just be counting groupings of learned patterns now instead of individual beats - and all in the subconscious.

Practice practice practice (and occasionally turn off the metronome, too, because you can't take that up on stage with you).

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    Let me quickly address "feeling out the music" - when anyone does that successfully - it's because they already have a library of learned and automatically recognized patterns - which they might not be consciously aware of (maybe they danced to music a lot as a baby/child and internalized the rhythms of that music). Practicing and identifying these and new patterns through counting and subdivision will help identify which patterns are already known and create new ones. If you don't know why something works, but you want to get better, it's good to figure out what you actually know!
    – BryanE
    Mar 2, 2017 at 19:16

Yes, with reservations.

If I encounter a bar with four crotchets, I don't count them. I know what it's going to sound like; I don't need to go 'one, two, three, four'.

If I encounter a bar with a dotted quaver, a semiquaver tied to a quaver, and a quaver, I don't count that either. It's a more complicated rhythm, but I've played it so many times I know how it sounds. Counting distracts me from more important things like tone and inflection.

So, if you know what a rhythm sounds like, you don't need to count it. It's kind of like a scale. If you see a series of notes that's part of a scale in a piece of music, you probably aren't going to read every individual note. You'll know what to play. You can do the same thing with rhythm.

Now for the reservation. You do still need to be able to count, and to know when you don't know what something sounds like. If I put my arranger's hat on, I can tell you that it's quite annoying when someone plays rhythms incorrectly because they think they know what it sounds like, and don't actually read what I wrote.

So, in summary, feeling rhythms (rather than counting) is natural, and can be desired. But be careful to feel the actual rhythm, not the one you think is there.

Also, as an aside, counting rhythms properly requires you to count the rests as well. If you don't, you'll get it wrong.

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    There can be found specific exercises for developing "rhythm vocabulary", where you learn to recognize the rhythm pattern much like recognizing a word rather than individual letters. There is a rhythm vocabulary workbook that I often give to students to help them with sight reading. It does require that you count the exercises first until you begin to recognize the patterns. Mar 2, 2017 at 6:16
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    this is a good answer, but it's worth noting that it sounds like OP doesn't actually know how to count rhythms. As you mentioned, "only counting the parts that I play in" doesn't really make any sense
    – Some_Guy
    Mar 2, 2017 at 9:58

It's like everything else we learn and do in life!

Start by counting. I've played with top musos, and each time a new piece comes along the watchwords are 'Get your head down and count like hell'. So even they rely on this!

Eventually, we reach a point where we've met pretty well all of the more usual rhythmic patterns, and recognise them, maybe not conciously, but more automatically. It's like when we see 'wheelbarrow' we remember the shape of the word so don't have to spell it out each time.

On to what I think is your main tripping up point. Rests make no noise! So, there's nothing to count! Well, make something! My old violin teacher, bless him (Cyril Perfect, Christine McVie's dad,Fleetwood Mac, fwiw...) would often sniff to 'play' a rest in a piece. Trouble was, it sometimes followed him into performances... But, it worked as there was always something tangible wherever there was a rest. I tend to nod the head, shrug the shoulders, or suchlike. But do something.


Some people block when they try to execute a rhythmically rich passage while counting out the beats and the sub-beats. You may be one of those people. If you are then you may want to learn rhythmic solfege.

When you have a tricky passage use a metronome for the rhythmic pulse and chant or sing the rhythmic solfege for that passage until you can hear it in your head without chanting. Then play the passage, still using the metronome. Record your chanting of the solfege and your playing of the passage to ensure that you are playing it correctly.

There are several systems of rhythmic solfege but one that seems to be popular right now is Takidimi although the Kodaly method is often used as well.


Count. Practice counting. Eventually (not too long) counting becomes second nature and needs no conscious effort.

  • 1
    Is 45 years "not too long"? I've publicly performed everything from the Goldberg Variations to Michael Finnissy, but last week when I took a stab at some easy-peasy Sweelinck, my rhythms were a train wreck. Never stop practicing counting. Mar 2, 2017 at 23:22

The basic instance where counting makes sense when sight-reading is with long notes or pauses in orchestral contexts. Solo pieces tend not to remain quiet for such long durations. I rarely count anything.

Here is an example where this actually caused some consternation for me: this is a multitrack recording where I put a third voice (1, 2, 4 are in the "live" take) in after the fact. Only when doing that I discovered that the last note before the second repeat was two beats instead of four. All the previous versions were solo takes and this problem was inconspicuous at least to me. The moment I tried to do this in "orchestral context", it blew up around my ears.

Took several tries until I could rush through the third voice here similarly without it becoming too obvious.

Even when playing stuff solo, listeners acquainted to a piece will get thrown off when stuff like this happens, and it also disturbs the overall structure of the piece for people new to it.

So you want to avoid mishaps and take whatever measures you think appropriate to keep them from happening. The more acquainted you are to score reading, the less your sightreading skills will rely on means like counting. And the fuller the score is and the more parallel elements are structuring the music, the less likely blunders like two missing beats are likely to happen. And often the music makes enough "sense" of its own that it is easy to "autocorrect" mistakes.

The last time I remember that being completely useless and merciless counting being necessary was in chamber sonates by Corelli because here the leading voices in a number of movements were wrong when you fell into the trap of synchronizing them: (I think some Corrente was particularly tricky): basically they needed to keep their melodic structures offset by some changing distance.

Putting the voices together was really a counting orgy. You couldn't "intuit" your way through that one at all. Not on sight.


What is "intuition"? Maybe you just chose a poor word, but that sounds like guessing.

You're correct that you don't want to expend the brainpower to actively count every single note. You want to learn to recognize chunks of music, especially regarding rhythms within a beat. Practice reading various subdivisions of a beat until the patterns become automatic. There are lots of books with rhythm practice exercises.

  • It doesn't sound like guessing to me. My understanding is that he's referring to being able to recognize shapes and play them accordingly. When I type :-) you recognize it as a face intuitively... (even though it hardly shares any resemblance to an actual human face) Similarly, a dotted eighth and a sixteenth has a pretty "intuitive" look/feel. I would differentiate between intuition and guessing. Mar 2, 2017 at 15:08
  • @GeneralNuisance - might be true. But it took me ages to work out that :-) was supposed to be a smiley face. But sideways.
    – Tim
    Mar 2, 2017 at 15:41
  • @Tim Well, yes, I had to have it explained to me a few times over before it stuck. My point with this is instant recognition and processing. An even better example is the English language, which has more sight-words than almost any other language. Mar 2, 2017 at 20:54

Not instead of counting, no, but it shouldn't be a question of either one or the other; You should almost certainly be trying to 'feel' the music for the sake of giving a performance that sounds like the right feel; Likewise, if you really don't know a tune, you're also going to need to be reading the music.

In this case, it sounds like your musical feel is acting like a useful check on your reading - but the thing to do is probably to is to work on the identified reading weakness.



reading rhythm is more important than reading pitch. (which is also pretty dang important.) just ask somebody who plays drums.

don't guess at music. play it correctly. after that, play around with it (improvise)

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    But most drums don't play pitch, so if you ask them, of course they'll say rhythm is more important. Not that I don't agree with you per se, but be careful with that. Mar 2, 2017 at 15:11

A little trick I like explain to my students - there are 2 ways to count rhythms.

  1. Divisive: eg 4 beats in a bar of 4/4. 16th notes become 1e&a, 2e&a, etc.

  2. Additive: Find the smallest rhythmic unit, make that the "beat", and work out the other rhythmic values as multiples of that. This is a good way of working things out (provided there aren't any divisive rhythmic devices like triplets).

I like to teach "Additive" counting to beginners as it's easier for most people to add beats together than to imagine what 1/2 or 1/4 of a beat sounds like. Take a rhythm like this:

enter image description here

Here's how you can work it out:

  1. Find the smallest rhythmic unit. In this case, it is 16th notes (semiquavers).
  2. Work out the other rhythms as multiples of the smallest rhythmic unit. For the example below, these are:

    • 16th note = 1 beat
    • 8th note = 2 beats
    • Dotted 8th note = 3 beats
    • Quarter note = 4 beats
    • Dotted quarter note = 6 beats
    • Half note = 8 beats
  3. Now write out the beat lengths for each note - for the example above, you'll get:

    • 3 1 2 2 | 3 1 2 | 4 2 | 2 2 4 3 1 | 8 4 |
    • 2 1 1 4 2 2 3 1 | 2 1 1 1 1 8 (6+2 tied notes) 2 2 1 1 4 |
  4. Count aloud with a slow metronome from 1 to (beat length) for each note, and clap on the 1s. So for the example:
    • 1 2 3, 1, 1 2, 1 2 | 1 2 3, 1, 1 2 | 1 2 3 4, 1 2 | (etc)

Now, you can work out just about any rhythm. Notice that you can figure out the rhythm without needing to know about time signatures using this method (the 2/4, 6/8, 3/4, etc - don't need to worry about those). That's a big plus for beginners - they've got enough things to think about already!


I've been playing piano, organ, accordion, and other keyboard instruments for over 50 years, and I've never counted. I get the rhythm right, usually. Is that intuition? I don't think so. I think it's just recognizing rhythm patterns and knowing how they'll sound.

Recently I took up banjo, then mountain dulcimer, hammer dulcimer, and autoharp. I still don't count. At this point I think it's safe to say I never will.

I know a lot of other people who do count. They aren't any better, or any worse, at playing correctly than I am. There's more than one road to Oz.

  • 1
    A statement concerning the different musical styles would have been more helpful than a list of instruments. If the Oz area is small enough...
    – guidot
    Mar 2, 2017 at 7:52
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    So, if you've never counted, how did you manage to get them right all those years ago? Intuition depends on experience; is not really innate in most people. Serious question!
    – Tim
    Mar 2, 2017 at 10:44
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    It could be that their teacher clapped the rhythm for them - that's what my dad did for me before I was old enough to understand fractions. Mar 2, 2017 at 14:16
  • @guidot - Sorry if my writing style offends you. That's just how I write. I was trying to make the point that my lack of counting embraced a wide variety of instruments, even if they do all fall into only a couple of genres.
    – L3B
    Mar 2, 2017 at 14:29
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    @Tim - I learned to read music before I learned to read English. At age 5 when I started lessons my teacher played my piece for me and I emulated. Very quickly I learned to associate the rhythm patterns with the sounds they made, and didn't need her to play them for me anymore. She didn't teach me to count, and so I didn't.
    – L3B
    Mar 2, 2017 at 14:32

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