My percussion ensemble is working on a song with different time signatures, i.e. it is constantly changing between 4/4, 7/8, 5/16 and so on. During the rehearsals, we sometimes want to start somewhere in the middle and then the problem arises, what is the best way of counting in?

Let's say bar 15 is in 5/16 and bar 16 is in 7/8 and we want to start on bar 16. We have the following options:

  • Count in 5/16 as this is the signature before bar 16. I had one teacher insisting on this version as it prepares the brain for later performance of the whole piece.
  • Count in 7/8 as this is the signature of the bar we want to start with.
  • Count in 4/4 as it doesn't matter anyway and the signatures are changes all the time. At least it's easy to count.

Is there an "official" way to do it? I guess larger orchestras don't have the problem as the directors usually don't count in.

5 Answers 5


Even if a large orchestra in rehearsal is not getting a verbal count-off, the meter is stil getting set up by the conductor visually--it's just that in many cases the conductor won't bother giving more than a single cue because the ensemble doesn't need it. Certainly if it's fast asymmetric and mixed meter music, you'll see something a bit more active from the director!

My perspectives on count-offs (or starting an ensemble with a visual cue) in general is that you are moving through the time immediately prior to the place where you're "starting". If you're at the beginning of a piece, your count-off is really in an invisible measure (measure 0, if you will). Some pieces start with pick-up beats in this otherwise "invisible" measure. So--whenever I am thinking about starting a piece (as a conductor or in rehearsal of chamber music), I begin my musical thinking in the measures or time prior to the "start point" and bring the ensemble in as we reach the appropriate point in time.

So long story short, in pieces with mixed meter I count off in the metric time that exists prior to where we're starting.

There's no reason to avoid these spots, and in many cases that's just not practical or doesn't make any sense (musical phrases don't always cycle in "nice" places).

I've seen professional ensemble directors do this in both of the ways that you mention, but obviously I agree with those that count in in the meter of the previous bar. I would never count in on an arbitrary time signature like 4/4 if it's nowhere to be found in the music you're playing--it makes no musical sense.

Lastly, I can see the 5/16 -> 7/8 transition being a bit tricky just due to the nature of the 5/16 bar (there's probably not a lot of time actually happening there)! In these cases, I see nothing wrong with extending your count-off to more than one bar; doing so in the meter(s) of those bars as they appear in the music.

  • I accepted this one as it adds some information about the common way to do it in larger ensembles. On a side note (I'm not a native English speaker): what is the correct word for it, do you "count in" or "count off"? Jun 14, 2012 at 14:22
  • Hmm, I think as a noun I would always say "count off" as in "Give us a count off." I might use either in the verb context: "Count off" when you are taking a more assertive musical leadership role, like leading a small jazz group ('Count off the band!'); "count in" perhaps when talking about a larger ensemble in rehearsal ('Can you please count us in?').
    – NReilingh
    Jun 15, 2012 at 0:29
  • And as a matter of fact that's exactly how I used the two words in my answer! It sounds like the kind of music you're playing does require active musical leadership, so it's almost certainly a "count off". They're obviously reasonably interchangeable, of course--my rationales are mostly poetic license anyway.
    – NReilingh
    Jun 15, 2012 at 0:37

In a piece of music with multiple time signature changes I definitely wouldn't count in at one of those changes.

You will be much better off coming in a few bars earlier so you can practice the lead in to the change, this also helps you prepare for playing it in one piece.

  • Absolutely agreed. It's important to practice the bridging gaps more, not less, so that it can be done smoothly.
    – user28
    Jun 13, 2012 at 19:08
  • 1
    Some music is nothing but time signature changes. For an example that's happened to me, when the "natural" time signature is 3+2+2+2+2+2+3, the score could be "transcribed" to permanent alternation between 7/8 and 9/8 (chosen among other possibilities to preserve natural strong beats in the right places)
    – J B
    Jun 14, 2012 at 5:15
  • As @JB pointed out, there are hardly any passages without signature changes in this specific piece. Otherwise, I agree of course. Jun 14, 2012 at 9:48

if you're gonna count in, i'd think you'ld use the timesig of the bar you're starting on (7/8 in your example). if you use the timesig of the previous bar, you're really just NOT counting in - you're starting a bar early.

my suggestion - find a "quieter" bar to start at.


The purpose of counting in is to get all performers' minds on the same tempo. In a base case, where all bars are 4/4, counting those 4 beats (or the last ones, anyway) is the obvious choice.

For music made up of several sections, you might have to punctually switch from one time signature to another. To start at the switching point, you can usually do it both ways:

  • pretend you were already in "the mood" for the second time signature. So start directly on that. IMO the easiest to pass along.
  • pretend you're in the middle of the bigger piece, and only starting the playing after the switch. So start one or two bars before the switch. Possibly humming whatever music's there.

As noted elsewhere, if you have any difficulty with the transition point, you will need to practice around it anyway.

But your example makes it sound like the time signature change is permanent. You'll want to step back and wonder if that permanent change is part of a pattern or more ad-hoc. Part of a pattern, and you'll want to consider that the "natural" time signature is something a bit more complex than a simple fraction, and you'll count the beats that immediately precede the place you want to start at. Counting in the whole pattern is of course easier, but that could be long. (Ad-hoc, and most bets are off. Try things, and keep what works.)

Coming back to the general spirit of "bringing everybody together": if the count-in isn't obvious, do announce what you're going to count before you do it. People's minds will "lock up" on the beat much easier than if they first have to recognize the meter.


This seems subjective, so here are my 2 cents:

At the beginning, when you are learning the piece, count in with the current bar.
When you are comfortable with counting and playing that part, switch to counting in with the previous bar.

It's the best of both worlds!

Never go with random counts -- it should be methodological and have purpose.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.