Something simple that I've found curious:

When people 'count in' a tune, to get all the players ready to start at the same time, I often hear them do it first at half-speed, then at full speed. e.g. if the tune is in 4/4, and there are 4 characters to a bar below, they'll say:

        ^everyone starts playing here

1_2_        (either 2 beats (counts) at half the expected tempo;or a whole 
            bar of the 'right' tempo, but saying 'two' on the 3rd beat)
1234        (a 4-beat bar at the 'right' tempo for the upcoming tune)

I realise not everyone does this; some just go: 1234 or 12341234 at 'full-speed', but it's quite common, and I wondered why. I guess it's a just a getting-you-ready introduction.

When I hear someone start with their initial 'one two', is there a way to tell immediately whether that 'one two' is the first two beats at the real tempo, or just the half-speed into, with a doubling of the speed about to follow?

  • 15
    Strictly speaking, it should be 1,3, 1234.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 23:15
  • 2
    Because 1, 3, 1234 doesn't have the right ring to it.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 0:17
  • 1
    Not all time signatures are counted this way. 3/4 is usually fully counted twice. I don't think I've ever counted 5/4 or 7/4, I usually sing something distinctive, such part of the melody or bass line, while snapping fingers. As for 4/4, I'd say the first 1-2 gives a general indication of the tempo while the following 1-2-3-4 allows for a tight start.
    – isanae
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 0:46
  • 1
    @isanae - for 5/4 and 7/4 it's usually a whole bar. premise being, it's long enough to cotton on to the pulse. All a hundred piece orchestra gets is an upbeat !
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 8:44
  • 1
    Used to work with a band where the leader would just go uh, uh, uh- uh- uh- uh. Worked fine! ( for 4 time - obviously!)
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 8:46

9 Answers 9


I love questions like this! I count like this when I'm counting in for a band, and I just had to take a step back and evaluate, and I think the reason I do it is this:

A count of just '1234' would be too fast, from starting the count to expecting people to play on the next '1', meaning the start would be sloppy.

If I count '12341234', unless it's explicitly defined with everyone I might count in for ever that I give 2 bars of count, every so often I'd get some people starting on the second '1' in the middle of my count. Not just sloppy, ugly.

If I count 1_2_3_4_, then that doesn't convey the feel of the song that I clearly want to, in which the measures are quite short (i.e. 1234), and the feel is as such. Risks getting the feel wrong.

Therefore, the logical conclusion is to use the style put forward in your question, to both give people time to get ready to play, and to convey the feel that the measures are short.

As for your second sub-question, no, it's not possible to tell after the 2_ that I'm going to count double after that, but either way, unless you're counting a song in 2 (i.e. 1_2_1_2_), you're not going to play on the next beat, meaning you don't strictly need to know what's coming next.

  • 1
    If a small band needs two whole bars, how does a large orchestra manage with just an upbeat?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 17:06
  • @Tim: Orchestras often do much more rehearsal, and will be much more focused on the conductor when he's about to start. Small informal groups will often get requests for songs that the members know, but which they might never previously have performed together. Further, if group members aren't all immediately focused on the next song, having the leader just start counting may come across better than "Hey guys--can we start now"?
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 14:51
  • @supercat - I used to go to plenty of orchestra rehearsals, and two or three hours did it for the evening's performance. Most bands seem to rehearse for a lot more than that, to achieve far less playing time. And, really, at a gig, surely it's important that the group members do concentrate on what's next?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 17:15
  • @Tim: Sure, two or three hours might be sufficient, but that would imply that the group has played each piece together at least once. In many cases, gigging groups may be performing songs that some members have never heard the rest of the group play. Further, after writing the above I realized another important role--letting the audience know that the performance is about to begin. At a symphony concert, audience members are there primarily for the performance, but at a restaurant or nightclub many audience members will be present for other reasons but still be interested in the music.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 17:24
  • Having a band leader call out "Could everyone be quiet please--I'm about to start playing" could be somewhat awkward for all concerned; having the band leader simply start counting very loudly would be faster and generally less awkward.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 17:27

I can't prove this, but it's possible it's an outgrowth of the military cadence tradition, where the drill sergeant calls out

Left (pause) Left (pause) Left Right Left

As I understand it, the two lefts are isolated a) to help beginners in the military focus on which foot hits when, and b) because the drill sergeant just plain needs to take a breath somewhere.

This could have made its way into musical tradition through the use of marches, specifically marches played by military bands.

But perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg scenario, in which case I don't actually know which one came first...


When recording a song, you have to know the tempo you're going to play before the song start, as well as when to start playing.

Since there is sometimes a pickup measure, a single measure of count-in (also called "pre-roll" in recording) would be too little, so a two measure count in is standard.

You could count "one two three four one two three four" or "one two three four two two three four" but both of those can be confusing for different reasons. Convention is that the first measure is counted on the half notes and the second measure is counted on the quarter notes.

If there is a pickup (aka anacrusis), then the count may be interrupted before the first note is played. E.g., "one --- two --- | one two three" and first note on four.

Another way to do the same thing is with a click track that has a pre-roll. In those cases, the two measure pre-roll usually has emphasized clicks on all of the downbeats, and since there is no other articulation for clicks, it's even more important for the click pattern to change between the first and second measure of pre-roll. So that means you get click --- click --- | click click click click.

Click tracks typically play during the whole track as a reference, especially for any breaks. Sometimes click tracks are suppressed for some parts of overdubs if the musician needs to follow an existing track more closely than the click, and the click might just be used for count in and breaks.

Regarding how to tell what the real tempo is from the first count/click, normally all the musicians who are about to play at the end of the count-in have practiced the song and should know the approximate tempo. Anyone who can't immediately tell that the tempo is about half the speed they expect it to be isn't ready to perform or record.

  • But it would be arguably more correct to count "one --- three --- | one two three [four]". Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 21:10
  • 3
    There are many ways to skin this cat. Conductors give nothing more than one upbeat, and when Menuhin tried to give the Berlin Phil a full bar they didn't know what he was talking about. Hal Blaine of the LA Wreckng Crew used to give the first 5 quarter notes and then three beats of silence.
    – user207421
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 21:40
  • 4
    In some informal settings, the initial count may be used not only to set tempo, but also to get all the performers' attention. If it doesn't seem like everyone is immediately ready, the count may end up going "one, two, one, two, one, two, one two three four!" with the shift to the faster counting indicating that since everyone is finally ready, the performance can (and should) begin.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 21:59
  • @EJP: "Conductors give nothing more than one upbeat" - that's a big generalisation! I've known plenty of conductors who gave a full bar or more. Perhaps you're referring to conductors of professional orchestras?
    – psmears
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 10:23
  • @EJP The question is about why people use this count in technique, not about all the other types of count ins used in different areas of music. But yes, there are many different ways people synchronize the beginning of an ensemble performance. Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 12:43

I think most of this is personal preference. People find that it works, so they do it. However, your question sentence about how to tell if they are giving you the "real" tempo or "half speed" tempo is actually a rather interesting one. Music doesn't have just one tempo. That's part of what makes it beautiful. There's the tempo you are playing quarter notes at, then there's the tempo you are playing half notes at. Then there's bars. Then there's phrases. Theres's lots of valid tempos, any one of which could be considered to be the "real" tempo, if it wasn't for that pesky written score which defines the tempo based on a specific note.

Again, it's all personal preference, but I find that tempos build up from the slow to the rapid in a form similar to how the higher voices like the sopranos build upon the foundation made by the bases. In that sense, it makes sense to lay down the lower frequencies before the higher ones.

In that vein, I have heard it counted "1 -- 2 -- 1 2 3 and 4 and," where the "and's" provided the expected feel for eighth notes.

But as EJP points out in his comments, there are indeed conductors who give nothing more than a single upbeat. They convey the tempo (and more) via other body language and an expectation that the orchestra is skilled in following their lead. So you really do see all kinds.

However, in general, I find all conductors do what is necessary to give you a hint that the song is actually starting, no matter how they call out the time. As such, if you find that you are getting "fooled" by this counting style, you can practice what it feels like to double your frequency. When you hear the 2nd '2' appearing way too early, that's your sign that you need to begin doubling your tempo when they call out '3'. After a while, it can become automatic.

And you can always ask =)

  • 1
    +1 I always count 6/8 as 3/4, and then mentally adjust the length of each note. Somehow that's easier.
    – jpaugh
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:01
  • I assume you mean counting the eightnotes? Counting quarters before entering in 6/8 would seem very awkward.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 17:28

It's mostly showmanship for the audience, tradition for certain genres (jazz big band comes to mind), and maybe a little bit of pep for the group. For merely getting the group to start together, it's certainly excessive.

When I hear someone start with their initial 'one two', is there a way to tell immediately whether that 'one two' is the first two beats at the real tempo, or just the half-speed into, with a doubling of the speed about to follow?

No way to tell.

  • 1
    Funny I hear this only in recording situations where a two measure pre-roll is extremely popular. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 19:53
  • A couple of times lately, a bandleader has counted in like this, but very quietly, and I've missed the intro. Worse - I've been the only one playing, or supposed to be! Please make it clear - or I'll have to start using my hearing aid.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 23:22
  • 1
    It's not just showmanship--in informal situations, it's a matter-of-fact way to let the audience know that the music is about to start. At a symphony orchestra concert, the audience will presumably be waiting for the performance, but in a nightclub people would often be expected to converse until the music starts. If a performer were to say "Okay everyone--finish up your conversations because we'd like to start", that could create some awkwardness all around. Having the performer give a count-in will give the audience a chance to very quickly put their conversations on hold.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 14:57

I am not a musician, but a swing dancer, thus this answer may provide a somewhat different perspective.

Swing dancers count beats from 1 to 8, as an 8-beat “phrase” is, to a dancer’s point of view, a more fundamental unit than the 4-beat bar. When training, swing dance instructors always count in like:

5 6 5678
        ^first rock-step goes on beat "1" here

There is no ambiguity about whether the first "5 6" is the real tempo or half tempo, because:

  • everybody starts counting half-tempo
  • if counting on top of the music, we do hear the music
  • if counting without music, the initial tempo would likely be too slow to be reasonable.

I always felt this was quite natural because, once I hear "5 6", my mind extrapolates up to the next "1":

5 6        <- heard
    7 8 1  <- extrapolated

so I already know when is the right time to start. When I hear the second "56", the same kind of extrapolation puts the 1 on the same place as before:

5 6        <- heard
    7 8 1  <- extrapolated
    56     <- heard
      781  <- extrapolated

So it would appear that the initial "5 6" and the subsequent "5678" work like a coarse countdown and a finer-grained countdown that are aligned to converge to the same start time.

Once, when I was training fellow dancers, I tried to count in like

1 3 5678

It looked more natural to me, as it has the same rhythm as "5 6 5678", and it also has more logical counts (beat 1 is counted "1" instead of "5"). Every one got confused and missed the start, so I reverted to the traditional way of counting in.


Often when the tempo of a piece of music is quite fast it is convenient for the musicians to think of the pulse/beat of the music as being in 2 minims (half notes) per bar rather than 4 crotchets (quarter notes) and this is often notated onto the music by giving it a time signature of C with a line through it (Cut Common) rather than 4/4. In these cases, for the avoidance of doubt and to get the musicians thinking of both the main pulse and how fast the crotchets (quarter notes) are going to be, so they can choose whether they want to keep thinking of the pulse personally as being in 2 beats per bar or 4 beats per bar it is helpful to count in as 1-2-1234, with the initial 1-2 being in the minim (half note) speed and the final 1234 being in the crotchet (quarter note) speed. Over time it has become the custom and also sounds cool!

  • Even when music is counted in 4, it seems the primary large unit of structure is often the breve (8 crotchets) rather than the semi-breve ("whole" note). It's too bad that when bar lines were added there wasn't a convention to use breve-length measures along with a mid-measure mark.
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 14:47

Others have given pretty much the same answer to the first half of your question that I would give, but in answer to the second half of your question:

When I hear someone start with their initial 'one two', is there a way to tell immediately whether that 'one two' is the first two beats at the real tempo, or just the half-speed into, with a doubling of the speed about to follow?

I, and all the directors I had before me who would ever "count in" a song like this would actually start with a finger snap (or if it's the drummer, a hi-hat or stick click) on 2 & 4. We'd keep that finger snap/click going for a measure or more to get the tempo ingrained and make sure the musicians got ready for the count in.

So if the count ended up being "1" (snap) "2" (snap) "1 2 3 4".. then you knew as soon as you heard the snap between 1 and 2, that the count had started at half-tempo. If the count were starting at full tempo, then that first "2" would be simultaneous with a snap.

Now if somebody did just a verbal count with no accompanying snap/click to indicate the tempo, then there would be no way to know, but honestly, I don't think I've ever seen anybody do that, though I'm sure somebody somewhere has done it.


To answer the specific question: A piece in 4/4 time is normally played with 2 or 4 beats per measure (or more rarely, 1 or 8 beats per measure). Different players in the group might "feel" it differently, and the two-speed count-off (1 - 2 - 1 2 3 4") lets them internalize the intended tempo in whichever manner they're most comfortable with. The "1 - 2 -" is for those feeling it in two, and the "1 2 3 4" is for those feeling it in four.

As far as the question of "how do you know how much count-off to expect", the person doing the count-off should state this up front if it isn't already obvious from context or previous experience.

To address the broader issue: A long count-off is used in two broad situations. The first is when the group does not have a conductor. One of the players does the count-off so that everyone can internalize the tempo and start in sync, after which they rely on listening to each other to maintain the tempo and stay in sync.

In the second situation — when the group has a conductor — there could be a number of issues at play:

  • It could just be a showy effect for the audience's benefit, common with jazz groups.
  • It could be a group of players with low levels of experience, such as a school or community band.
  • It could be a group of players (even professionals) who have not had much (or any) rehearsal together — they might have subs or they've just gotten together for this particular performance and are essentially sight-reading.

In general, in an experienced group that has a good conductor and has rehearsed together before — especially orchestras and wind ensembles — the conductor can convey the tempo using just a single preparatory gesture of the baton. This is the most "professional" way to do it.

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