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 one we recognize even at a young age.

When the rhythm in music is accurate and precise, we know it. And when it’s not, 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?

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 rhythm right, it helps to clap and count it aloud, without the guitar. What good does this 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 fingerings, dynamics, or how the music sounds.

How to Count Rhythms

So how do we clap and count 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 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.

Rhythm – Getting Started

To begin counting rhythm, we first need to understand the notation.

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.

time signature
The time signature tells us how to count

How to Count Quarter Note Rhythms

What is a quarter note? A 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 (8th) Note Rhythms

What is an eighth note? An eighth note gets one-half beat of time. Eighths are represented by a black dot (notehead) with a stem and a flag. We can join more than one together by connecting the flags.

Here’s how to count rhythms using 8th 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 8th notes

How to Count Sixteenth (16th) Note Rhythms

What is a sixteenth note? A 16th note gets a quarter of one beat. Four 16ths add up to one quarter note. They are written like the 8th notes, but with two flags. To count 16ths, the first note of the beat gets the number, as in the quarter note. The third 16th is the 8th note, from above, and is called “and”. The 2nd 16th we call “e”, pronounced “ee.” And the fourth 16th we call “a”, pronounced “uh.”

So in total, we clap and count 16th note rhythms: 1 e & a 2 e & a etc.

count 16th notes
How to count 16th notes

How to Count Thirty-Second (32nd) Note Rhythms

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

count 32nd notes
How to count 32nd notes

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

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, so that there are 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, 8ths)

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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