Counting can make you a worse musician

Man playing guitar

Only count when it makes the music better (photo credit)

It seems so simple, but a lot of musicians make rhythm harder on themselves because they don’t know how to count effectively. You don’t need to count everything to be good at rhythm. In fact, if you count everything, you’re probably holding yourself back.

Rhythm, like most elements of music, is best learned as a sort of gut feeling. Over time, you come to associate certain notational patterns on the page (or sounds that you hear around you), with specific rhythms. They become your old friends, and you recognize them instantly.

It’s all about recognition

You can recognize your buddy Joe no matter if he’s wearing a blue shirt or an orange one. For the same reason, you can recognize your old rhythmic friends no matter if they’re going by fast or slow, in one key or another.

But what if, instead of looking for Joe, you were looking for brown eyes, hair of a certain length, a person of a certain height, and the coat he was wearing last week? Then you might miss Joe when he walks by, because you’d be trying to process too many details all at the same time.

That’s exactly how many musicians count music.

Practice without counting

When you’re practicing pieces in, count only when you absolutely need to. If you focus in on the details too much, you’ll miss the big picture and lose your place. Of course, you do need to count sometimes, just be selective about where you do it.

There are really only two places where you should always count. The rest of the time, you probably just need to learn the music better.

1. Count rests. If you’re not playing, you should be counting so you know when to come in again. Especially when you’re counting a short rest that goes into a syncopation, it’s important to “fill” that rest in your mind so that you find your new entrance. For example, in the following example, the only beat I would count is the rest on beat three. The rest happens automatically.

That little rest in the middle of the bar should feel like a big accent in your mind.

2. Count when there’s interference. When something tricky is happening in another part, that’s a good time to count the big beats. You don’t want to count every detail of your part, but you want to make sure you stay with the beat so that you don’t get pulled away by what the other musicians are playing. So if someone is playing a tricky cross rhythm that interferes with your part, you should focus on the pulse—1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4—to keep you anchored and to drown out the other activity.

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