There are several very helpful threads dealing with counting, but none of them answer my rather dumb question: do musicians always count? By which I mean are they always saying or thinking 1~&~2~&~3~&~4~& (or whatever count) while playing?

The reason I ask is that I can't seem to do it for more than a couple of bars. I'm an adult beginner on C flute. I don't have the option of counting out loud or speaking rhythm words because my mouth is busy trying to maintain tone, articulation and intonation. I start to count then I forget, or I count and can't help articulating on each count, as if to count out loud. Basically, I don't seem to have the mind space to count as well as managing everything else.

A related question: do orchestral or ensemble players count bars always? In other words, how do they know when to come in?

  • 2
    Do you always move your lips when you are reading a book? Of course musicians "count" - but you might not see anything visible going on while they are doing it. Real musicians can count 100 bars accurately while going offstage for a few of drinks and catching up with their emails, and still come in at the right place!
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 2:57
  • Very broad question, dependent on individuals, genre, etc etc. Personally I've never had to count except when first learning something with an unusual form or time signature and on certain parts a of piece like intro's when different instruments come in at different times or 'between beats', pauses, long codas or drum solos - places where the regular rhythm might be broken and getting it exactly right is critical. But If you're playing flute from sheet music and you have a metronome (or a conductor) - why would you need to count out numbers? The music and the time-keeper tell you.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 7:18
  • 1
    Reading the suggested answers, i can only conclude that the question asked by the OP is too broad. Maybe you could better specify what difficulty you are seeking to solve.
    – g3o2
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 12:56
  • @g3o2 the fundamental problem is I'm really bad at rhythm, and only now understanding that it's fundamental to music.
    – Louis B.
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 15:21
  • @Louis B. Maybe you should come with a concrete example excerpt, so that one can help you tackle that particular case. Case by case your skill will improve.
    – g3o2
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 22:19

5 Answers 5


We do count, but mostly not consciously. Like reading a book, music reading becomes more and more a matter of recognising patterns. Sometimes we have to stop and work it out though.


No, you don't always have to count the numbers in your head all the time. As you work on counting rhythms, eventually, with enough practice, you can develop a "feel" for how many counts or bars have gone by.

Also, when reading notated rhythms you will eventually develop a "rhythm vocabulary", where you will recognize a rhythm pattern that you have practiced before, and know what that rhythm sounds like as a whole, much like reading a whole word instead of sounding out every letter.

There are Rhythm Vocabulary study books available that contain just the rhythm patterns without pitch, so as to practice the patterns and counting.

Reading the rhythm of the piece you are working on out loud, not playing your instrument, while pointing at the notes as you go can help develop your sense of the count. Make sure you say the count out loud, as using muscles to say the count will help develop the feedback faster than thinking the count in your head. Counting and clapping the rhythm also works as an exercise.

In some cases it is easier to learn the rhythmic pattern by not using the actual count of the measure, but dividing the notes up into the smallest beat you are using and counting those. For example in a piece where the eighth note is the beat you are using (1 and 2 and etc), you count four pulses for a half note, three for a dotted quarter, one for the eighth etc., so for a rhythm that has four eighths followed by a dotted quarter followed by a half note you would count 1 1 1 1 ,1 2 3, 1 2 3 4 allowing you to get the relative timing of each note set.

In an orchestra or ensemble, you usually always count the bars of rests, but some musicians will rely on learning the other instrument parts and use those as a cue when they are coming up to an intro. Some cues can also be taken of where you are by listening to the other instruments.


Safe answer! It depends. It depends on what we're doing, at what stage we're at, on how tricky the music is, etc., etc.

Beginners will probably want to count to keep in time. That aspect takes a bit of a backseat later.

Playing something by ear, or busking - there's often no need to count, as rhythms are probably known, so counting won't help. And often a tapped foot, a nodding head, a body sway, will do that job automatically.

Reading a new piece: in the big bands I work in, the phrase used was 'heads down and count like hell' - which works rather well.Most seemed to count internally; there's no real need to do it aloud, and as you say, difficult when blowing!

It will also depend on whether you are solo, in a group, in an orchestra, etc.Solo players do skip beats, play 'wrong' rhythms, especially those who are self-taught. It usually shows when they have to play with others, like in a small group. A drummer could be the life-saver here, to keep everyone in time. In an orchestral situation, the conductor's there to help, although if one's doing nothing for 50 bars, one should be counting - bars - at least, waiting for the cue.

So, there's really no hard and fast rule - some do, some don't, some don't even need to. No-one's mentioned metronome yet, so here it is. Use a metronome, which to a great extent will do the counting for you. It can be set at single beats, or divisions of those, to help with tricky passages.


As a guitarist, it is very common for musicians to tap their feet while playing so as to count the beats. While there is no clear distinction between beats and measures with this method, I think it comes down to feel. Some other guitarists might move their head or have some other way of keeping the tempo.

I consider it is very helpful to learn the basic conducting patterns even if you are not a conductor or don't plan to be one. This is a very good method of counting the beats, keeping the tempo, and knowing where one measure ends and the next one begins. Most of the times counting the measures is more about feel, but I do find myself moving my head slightly (or even my toe) and visualizing the conducting pattern in my head. Once you do it for a while when just listening to music, it becomes very natural and doesn't interfere a lot with your concentration on the music.


I've been playing guitar for 30+ years and while I almost always tap my foot (or click my teeth much to my dentist's dismay), I almost never count the numbers 1-2-3-4. That said, I actually think it might be a worthwhile exercise to count the beats outloud while practicing, especially if it's a a particularly unusual passage (rhythimically speaking).

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