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How to Count in Music | The Basics

Updated on August 7, 2015

A-One, A-Two, A-One, Two, Three!

Anyone remember the old Lawrence Welk TV show?? This count was the way he always began his show, which featured his band, and guests who sang or danced to the music, with a little bit of interview thrown in. Of course, that was way back in the dark ages of only 5 channels on a TV set with a screen no bigger than a laptop computer of today; and the programs were produced and broadcast only in black and white. (Ok, so I'm dating myself.)

Mr. Welk may have begun there, but was among the first to embrace the new color TV broadcasting technology, the better to show off the elaborate costumes of the guest dancers.

In his signature introduction to the muisic, he was, of course, counting off the introductory measures for the band to begin playing.

The Lawrence Welk TV show often began with Mr. Welk counting out, "A-one, a-two, a-one, two, three..."
The Lawrence Welk TV show often began with Mr. Welk counting out, "A-one, a-two, a-one, two, three..." | Source

Musically Counting

Counting in music, as with any other kind of counting, involves numbers.

Seriously, though, music and math are fairly closely related. An engineer needs math to figure out the stress loads of buildings, or clearance tolerances inside an engine. A composer needs a certain amount of math to engineer the piece of music to come out sounding the way he intends.

And the musicians who play or sing the musical composition need the same math to interpret what the composer wanted the piece to sound like. Otherwise, you'd only end up with gibberish that sounds like musical mush, and every player would make the same piece of music sound totally different.

The main math in music involves fractions. Yeah. Those one number on top of the line; one number under the line constructions that always gave me fits in school: ¼; ½; ¾, and so forth. (The note values do subdivide as far down as sixty-fourth notes; usually found in very fast-paced music.)

You Have To Measure

In order to keep things orderly, the staffs are divided into sections called measures. For purposes of clarity, I am going to continue my illustrations using only the treble clef staff, although the same information applies to any type of musical notation.

The measure divisions are not only part of the phrasing and character of the music, but also help determine the tempo, or speed. This in turn is determined by what kinds of notes are predominantly used in the music. Measures are marked at intervals with vertical lines drawn through the staff from top to bottom.

Notes Have Value!


Timing is Everything

The left-most end of the staff of music in any piece, first shows the clef symbol, as we have shown in part one. Immediately after the clef symbol is the key signature. This tells what key (pitch) the music is written in. Following the key signature* is the time signature, virtually always written as a fraction.** This tells how many of which kind of note will be found within each measure and also which type of note gets the beat.

*Please note: if there is no "key signature" shown--
only the time signature--this is the default for "key of C." 
That is because in the key of "C," there are no sharps 
or flats (the black piano keys) used.
**The two exceptions to the fractional format 
are alternat symbols for "common time," and "cut time." 
 The first looks like a big, ornate letter "C," 
and the second is the same, but with a 
vertical line running through it. 
 It can get confusing for beginners, 
so I'll leave it at that for now.

A Very Simplistic, but Easily Understood Illustration

Wittner 804K Metronome
Wittner 804K Metronome

Metronomes are a valuable asset in learning how to keep to the correct tempo


Learn This Well:

Do not fall into the trap I did, caused by my piano teacher so many eons ago. Each type of note, whether whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc. gets a certain amount of time to sound. This is where musical counting comes into play. Each "count" is called a beat. My piano teacher did me a great disservice by drumming into my head, "A quarter note gets one beat, a half note gets 2 beats, a whole note gets 4 beats." Now that you have read that, please forget it. That particular counting scheme applies only to the 4/4 time signature, which tells you that there are 4 beats to the measure, and the quarter note gets the beat.

In other tempos, such as "cut time" (which basically means double-speed), each note's value is cut in half, shifting the note values accordingly. Therefore, in a piece of music noted as "cut time," that whole note would be reduced to a 2-count; the half note would get a one-count, and the quarter note would get a half beat count. In other words, the note values are "the same" only in that they retain the same relative values to each other. Their own individual values are not set in stone.

What my piano teacher should have taught me instead, was, "A half note is held half as long as a whole note; a quarter note is held a fourth as long as a whole note, ..." and so forth. But, she did not, so later in life, when I again explored music, I was thrown for a loop when I came up against "cut time," and could not get it right.

"Beat me, daddy, eight to the bar" has nothing to do with races, beatings or 'bellying up to the bar" for a drink!

The Piano Keyboard

For ease of illustration, I'm going to use the visual aid of the piano keyboard. While the piano is probably one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult of instruments to master and play well, it is also the easiest on which to visualize how the notes and steps related to each other.



Don't Trip on the Steps...

Each move from one white key to the next, or from one black key to the next, is called a step. But, be careful, as there are also half steps. You will need your keyboard, or keyboard printout to follow this so that it is easy to understand.

Let's start where most people start, with Middle C on the keyboard. As we move from left to right, going upwards in pitch, the next white note is "D." That move is one whole step. Now, from "D" moving right one white key, we land on "E." This is another whole step. Now, between "E" and its next-door neighbor, "F," there are no black keys. This is a half step. Because of the absence of black keys, it is called a "natural half step."

As we continue moving toward the right on the white keys, we next come, in order, to "G," "A," and "B." These are all whole steps. There are two natural half steps in this scheme, and we've arrived at the next one. Notice again the absence of black keys between the "B" where we've just landed, and the next "C" immediately to the right. That marks the natural half step, and takes us back to another "C," the eighth one from where we began. Congratulations! You've just played your first octave, and your first scale.

Scales and Octaves

Pitch Is Everything Else

Pitch, or key signature, mentioned briefly above, is the rest of the story. We've already discussed the very basics of the musical alphabet that tells us which notes to play. There's more to it than just that, however.

If you refer back to the piano keyboard, you'll notice alternating sets of white and black keys. The basic notes we've already covered refer only to the white keys. The black keys are sharps and flats, which have the effect of raising and lowering the pitch, or sound, or tone (however you care to think of it) by a small amount.

Music Theory For Dummies
Music Theory For Dummies

Overall, I have found the "for Dummies" series of books to be very easy to understand, and not actually written as if they are talking down to you.


The Symbols of Accidentals

Remember that bit about whole and half steps? Good. You'll need that information here. Accidentals are the symbols that tell you when those notes are called for, and for how long. Just as within the key signature, accidentals are the same sharp and flat symbols, except that they are found within individual measures or bars of music. They tell you that, regardless of the overall key (or pitch) in which the music is written, the composer wants you, for just this one instance, to change the pitch for a given note.

In that case, a sharp, flat or natural sign would be placed immediately to the left of the note to be affected. These changes are always a half-step in pitch, regardless of whether the result places you on a black key, or one of the two natural half steps falling on neighboring white keys.

A sharp symbol (or sign) raises the pitch that half step, moving you to the right on the keyboard. A sharp symbol looks like a pound sign, or a small tic-tac-toe grid, more narrow and canted at an upward angle.

A flat sign drops the pitch a half step, moving you left on the keyboard. A flat sign looks like a lower-case letter "b," again, slightly squished and canted upwards a bit.

A natural sign cancels out the previous accidental, telling you to revert to the original values in the key signature. It can also cancel out, a sharp or flat that appears in the key signature (usually referenced only as 'key'). A natural sign looks like a pair of upper-case letter "L's," with one inverted against the other, forming a box in the center.

Any accidental is automatically cancelled out at the conclusion of the given measure in which it appears, or within the measure by the 'natural' symbol, indicating a return to the original key.

Having Accidents on Purpose...

Okay! We've just completed playing a C-major scale. Yep--that's right--there are yet more divisions and terms to contend with. There are also minor scales, but won't concern ourselves with that now.

The point here is, that octave scale we've just finished represents the key of C major. It is very common--and certainly the best starting point for beginners--because all you have to worry about are the white keys.

But...suppose the composer wants you to use the black keys too--how is that indicated? That's where the key signature comes in, or, sometimes, just a single indicator next to a particular note, telling you to change that pitch for just that one time. In the latter case, these are called "accidentals." (Why that term came into being is lost to history, but there it is, and that's what they are called.)



More Exceptions to Rules:

This is not the same thing as a vocalist singing "sharp" or "flat," as that means they are off-pitch, or off-key.

While it is true that they have still moved up or down in pitch, they have done so incorrectly, so the term means something different in that case.

Most singers who are off-pitch will be flat. Singing sharp is rare, and difficult for most to do on purpose.

Dual-Purpose Notes

Now, as if I have not caused enough confusion already, what with time signatures, key signatures, black and white notes, sharps, flats and naturals, let me add one more thing to the mix. All of the black keys have two names--they can be either the sharp named from its left-hand neighbor, or the flat named from its right-hand neighbor. (See illustration below.)

This same duplicity is true in the white keys only in the case of the aforementioned 'natural half-steps,' in which "C" can become "B-sharp," or "B" can become "C-flat." The same is true of the "E" and "F" pair. Just remember--moving right up the keyboard (or up in pitch on any other instrument) is sharp; moving left (or down in pitch) is flat.

Sharps and flats on a piano.  Moving left is lower in pitch; moving right is higher in pitch
Sharps and flats on a piano. Moving left is lower in pitch; moving right is higher in pitch

More Keys and Modes Than You Care to Know

There are all the major and minor scales, each taking its name from the starting note of that scale; A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. All come in both major and minor.

There are also many variations on those scales, such as diminished and augmented, most usually found in playing chords. (Think of the "Hallelujah" 4-time repetition in the famous Hallelujah Chorus; you find alternating "normal" and augmented chords that give that particular sound.) It is a cheery sound.

The diminished chord is more minor sounding. You get a more poignant, wistful or sad sound from the minor scales and chords.

If you go back into really old music, such as Renaissance and Medieval, you run into styles called "modes," or "modal," which precede today's type of scales. They have old Latin or Greek names:

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian
  7. Locrian

I list those only to show how complex music can get. I will not explain them, as I cannot. I only know they exist, and do not understand the rules of each myself well enough to offer any 'translation.' They do, however, have a very different sound than music we are accustomed to in the modern Western musical world.

If you're curious, the video below offers a sample of their different sounds.

Modal Music Scales

Music is Everywhere

People respond to music. It surrounds us daily, whether we are listening on purpose to music for relaxation, to dance to, to energize us, or whether it is served up as part of an advertisement, we cannot escape music, and few would want to.

Humans love music and its rhythms, and this goes back into our pre-history. There is just something about listening to the tonalities and beats that speaks to our very core. It is a discipline, and takes years of practice to master, but is well worth the effort.

Even if you have no inclination to be a musician yourself, hopefully, this series will have helped your appreciation in listening.

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Submit a Comment

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi, Jamie--

    Yes, it would indeed apply to all styles of formal, metered poetry. I, however, write in blank or 'free' verse, because I am lousy at rhyme. ;-)

    Thanks much for stopping by and adding that bit of insight.

  • jhamann profile image

    Jamie Lee Hamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

    I play piano and love your hub. I also think that what you have discussed is important in writing poetry. Jamie

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi there, epbooks!

    I know what you mean; I had 4 years of piano as a kid, and another couple or three years taking recorder in college, and I really don't think much of it 'stuck.' I still struggle with notes on 'ledger lines,' (have to name them out using my fingers--can't sight-read them), and then the issue with the cut time--the recorder class is where I encountered that I like music, but no longer attempt to play much.

    I'm glad you liked the article, and I think you for your nice comment.

  • epbooks profile image

    Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

    I love music and have played piano, clarinet, violin and tried to play drums (didn't work to well). I wish I stayed with one of them, as I don't remember much of it, but this was a nice reminder. Enjoyable hub!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, DDE,

    Thank you so very much for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub. Yes, if I can ever find the time for practice... ;-) I'm afraid I'm too much of a generalist though; bouncing from one interest to another and back again. ;-)

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Awesome! You have all in detail and so interestingly laid out. You could succeed with practice.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, RonElFran,

    I'd had this hub in the works for a bit, and was frankly stumped for an opening photo. I'm glad my sudden inspiration worked for you. Thanks so much for your great comment.

  • RonElFran profile image

    Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

    The moment I opened this hub and saw "A-One, A-Two..." and a picture of Lawrence Welk I was captivated. What a perfect illustration for your subject.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, An1Az2,

    Thanks--I have it down well enough to understand, and am able to explain the basics, but I am no concert musician. I play well enough for my own amusement, though I am not terribly amused. ;-)

    Style and individual interpretation, yes, you get into a very different scheme of things, which leads to "arrangements" of others' compositions. Not all of them are good; some are miserable, where a piece written to be played quickly is turned around and played like a dirge.

    Thanks very much for stopping by.

  • Ann1Az2 profile image

    Ann1Az2 3 years ago from Orange, Texas

    Looks like you have all of this down pat. Then you get into the style and rhythm people have that is of course, different for everyone!