Clap and Count Rhythm Aloud: How to Learn the Rhythms in Your Music

Rhythm is one of the main elements of music. And it’s one we recognize even at a young age.

When the rhythm in music is accurate and precise, we know it. We can all feel a steady pulse, whether we are conscious of it or not. And when it’s not steady, we notice that, too.

One of the best ways to make everything we play more beautiful is to master musical rhythm. And one of the best methods for this is to clap and count the rhythm aloud.

But how do you count rhythm? And why is it worth the practice?

What is Meant by Counting Rhythms?

When we count rhythms, we are demonstrating the way a rhythmic pattern fits into the “beat” of a piece of music.

So let’s look at the difference between the terms rhythm and beat.

What is the beat?

The beat (or “pulse”) is a regular pattern in a piece of music that ticks away like a clock. Or pulses like the blood in our veins.

It’s a sort of internal consistency. It’s what we clap or click our fingers to. Or what we tap our foot to, ‘in time’ with a song. And it usually doesn’t change unless the key signature or tempo (the speed) of the piece changes.

When we sing and strum chords, we usually strum down on the beat.

What is the rhythm?

The rhythm is where a voice or instrument does something different over the top of that regular beat. Much like singing a nursery rhyme while we clap in time.

The words of the song are the rhythm. The clapping is the beat.

Occasionally, like in the first two lines of Hot Cross Buns, the rhythm and the pulse sound similar. If we know this rhyme, we can try clapping and singing it now:

Hot Cross Buns (rest)

Hot Cross Buns (rest)

One a pen-ny, two a pen-ny,

Hot Cross Buns (rest)

The words in the first two lines follow the beat. But notice how the rhythm changes in line three. It changes to enable us to fit the syllables into the line.

The beat, however, continues ticking along as it did during the first two lines. We only clap on ‘One’, ‘Pen’, ‘Two’ and ‘Pen’.

Counting the Rhythm

Playing in time is important. Pulse and rhythm are the glue that holds music together.

So it’s important to be able to know how to count different rhythms accurately. Then we can fit them into the steady beat, as the composer intended.

Why Clap and Count Musical Rhythms Aloud?

When we first look at a piece of music, we usually gravitate towards the notes. We want to figure out where to put our fingers on the guitar.

But the rhythm is just as (or more) important as the pitch. Rhythm moves us. Rhythm is primal. So it pays to get it right.

And to get the rhythm right, it helps to clap and count it aloud from the sheet music without the guitar.

What good does counting rhythms do? Here are a few benefits:

Benefit: Learn classical guitar music faster

When we clap and count the rhythm as we first learn a new piece, we learn more quickly. We understand how the music is organized in time.

Benefit: Avoid rhythm mistakes

When we work on the rhythm in isolation (without playing the notes), we are less likely to make rhythm mistakes later.

We avoid confusion. And this means our practice sounds more musical, from the beginning.

Benefit: Train your ear to hear the right music

Often, if we play inaccurate rhythms in practice, we start to think the mistakes sound correct. If we play a mistake repeatedly, we tell our brains that the mistake is actually the correct way to play.

Then, when it comes time to fix the mistake, it proves much more difficult.

When we train our aural memory to hear the correct rhythm, we skip the need to retrain it later.

Benefit: Memorize music more easily

Clapping and counting rhythms also helps us to memorize music. We can remind ourselves of the numbers and syllables in a measure. And this can help to bring other information to mind.

When we remember the rhythm, we may also remember the fingerings and dynamics on the sheet music. Or how the music sounds.

How to Count Rhythms

So how do we clap and count the rhythm? Luckily, there is a method for this.

NOTE: It’s best to put the guitar aside, and work on the rhythm separately. After we master the rhythm, then we can add the sound of the notes.

ANOTHER NOTE: Counting silently in your head doesn’t work. As soon as any small distraction arises, we stop counting. And this is when it’s needed most. Many people feel uncomfortable counting aloud, using their voice. That’s fine. No one said it has to be comfortable. But it does become more “normal” as time goes on.

Counting Rhythms – Getting Started

Some rhythm counting systems use nonsense syllables or sounds, which can be fun and useful to some people. But a logical way of rhythm counting is to use numbers, so that’s what we will do here.

To begin counting even simple rhythms, we first need to understand a little basic music theory.

First, music is split into measures (also called “bars”).

music measure or bar

Music is organized in bars, or measures.

Next the “time signature” tells us how many beats per measure, and what kind of note to count as one beat. The top number is ”how many”, and the bottom number is ”what type”.

time signature

The time signature tells us how to count

How to Count Quarter Notes (Crotchets)

What is a quarter note? Also known as crotchets, one quarter note gets one beat of time. To count quarter notes, we use whole numbers – 1, 2, 3, etc. Quarter-note rhythm patterns are often thought to be “easy rhythms”.

Important: it does not matter if the note stem points up or down. Note stem direction does not affect anything. It just looks more organized on the page one way vs. the other.

How to count quarter notes

How to Count Eighth Notes (8ths or Quavers)

What is an eighth note? Also known as quavers, an eighth note gets one-half beat of time. Eighth notes are represented by a black dot (notehead) with a stem and a flag.

We can join two eighth notes together by connecting the flags so that they become “beams” across the notes. It’s very common to find paired eighth notes like this, as shown below.

Here’s how to count rhythms using eighth notes. To count quarter notes, we use whole numbers for the notes that fall on the beat (1, 2, 3, etc.), and “and (&)” for the notes that fall between the beats. So the full count sounds like, “one-and two-and three-and” etc.


count 8th notes
How to count eighth notes

How to Count Sixteenth Note Rhythms (16ths or Semiquavers)

What is a sixteenth note? Also known as semiquavers, sixteenth notes get a quarter of one beat. Four sixteenth notes add up to one quarter note. They are written like eighth notes, but with two flags or beams. To count 16ths, the first note of the beat gets the number, as in the quarter note. The third sixteenth is the eighth note, from above, and is called “and”. The 2nd sixteenth we call “e”, pronounced “ee.” And the fourth sixteenth we call “a”, pronounced “uh.”

So in total, we clap and count sixteenth note rhythms: 1 e & a 2 e & a etc. (Pronounced 1 ee and uh etc.)

count 16th notes
How to count 16th notes

How to Count Thirty-Second Notes (32nds or Demisemiquavers)

To count 32nd notes, we add the syllable “d”, pronounced “duh” between each sixteenth note.

count 32nd notes
How to count 32nd notes

What Happened to Whole Notes and Half Notes?

Whole notes (also known as semibreves) and half notes (minims) have longer durations than quarter notes, so if we have a measure with four beats in it, both whole notes and half notes are longer than the duration of a single beat.

We can count them in the same way nevertheless. We count to four on a whole note, and two on a half note. They tend to be easier to count than notes with smaller values.

Click here for a full explanation of note durations.

How to Count Triplets

How to count triplets

Click here for a full exploration of triplet rhythms.

How to Count in 6/8 Time Signature

Even when we come across what looks like more complex time signatures, we can still use a similar counting rhythm trick.

(Time signatures with 6, 9 or 12 at the top are called “compound meters”.)

6/8 time signature
How to count in 6/8 time signature

How to Clap and Count Rhythms in Music – Subdivide and Conquer

In a piece of music, we often have more than one note value. We may have quarter notes, half notes and eighth notes, all in the same measure. We may even have stacked rhythms, where there is more than one rhythm happening at the same time.

When we have more than one note value in the measure, we count the smallest. And we count the smallest note value throughout.

clap rhythm beat

Count the smallest note value throughout (here, eighths)

When we count aloud a smaller note value than we clap, it’s called “subdividing”. Subdividing helps us play more accurate rhythms. It helps ensure we don’t alter the overall speed of the piece. And this is especially helpful during long notes.

See the first video above at 7’25? for an explanation and example of subdividing.

To aid memory and learning, we can recall the beats on which the rhythm falls:

memorize rhythm
Recalling the beats with notes helps us memorize music.

Go Slow, Use a Metronome, and Stay With It

Clapping and counting gets easier with time and practice. And the reward is well worth the work.

Use a metronome to keep in steady time. This skill, combined with clapping and counting aloud, will boost musicianship.

As with near anything new, clapping and counting may be awkward at first. This is normal. Just keep going! As you practice reading rhythms, it will feel as natural as reading aloud in your native language.

Good luck!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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