Although we learn to count rhythms and beats when we learn to read music, being rhythmically adept isn’t, of course, dependent on reading music  –  people the world over, in all cultures, can follow or create a beat, and most don’t study music formally.

For those who have trouble, it’s important to know that rhythm-impairment and the inability to count a time signature are not necessarily related. In fact, I’ve found they are rarely related.  The inability to count a time signature is usually simply due to not understanding it. Nine out of ten paper-trained musicians, when asked to describe what a time signature means, cannot do it accurately. No kidding. When I ask for a description of what a time signature means (from people who should know), it’s amazing the variety of attempted explanations I hear. Personally, I think it’s inexcusable that so many teachers don’t make a point of seeing that their students fully understand this most basic of concepts, because it is the foundation of good music reading.

Are you sure precisely what a time signature means? Make no assumptions. Before you read on, get a pencil and paper and write down exactly what you think a 4/4 time signature means. Then a ¾, and then a 6/8  –  those three are reasonable examples of different time signatures. Don’t read on until after you’ve written your description down! (Hint: it can be described in one brief but concise sentence.)


Ideally, here’s what you should have written:

4/4: Four beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

3/4: Three beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

6/8: Six beats per measure and an eighth note gets one beat.

That wording is not my own; it’s the standard music-school definition, the simplest and most accurate way of describing each of those time signatures, and it is the standard because it very precisely describes what you need to know. There simply is no other way to define a time signature accurately.

Memorize the concept. The upper number is how many beats per measure. The lower number represents the type of note that gets one beat. Without knowing that, the music won’t make sense.

Are you aware that the value of one kind of note is consistently relative to the other kinds of notes, but the overall value depends on the specific time signature? In other words, an eighth note is always 1/8 the time value of a whole note; a quarter note is always 1/4 of a whole note (and therefore twice the value of an eighth note), a half note is always half of a whole note (and therefore twice the value of a quarter note), and so on; but which of those types of notes is assigned one beat can vary. In 6/8 time, an eighth note gets one beat, and therefore a whole note gets eight. In 4/4 time, a quarter note gets one beat, and therefore a whole note gets four. And so on. If you play from the printed page and any of the above is confusing, run, don’t walk, to your nearest qualified teacher!

That said, those who learn exclusively and well by ear can often get along quite well without counting consciously. Notice I said “learn well by ear”. Not “learn sort-of”. Learning by ear can be done well or poorly, as can any method, and we have to be honest with ourselves about how well we’re learning.

If you’re thinking it’s not possible to learn well by ear, go sit in a pub in Ireland for an evening, or visit a tribal ceremony anywhere in Africa, or go to a concert of Jamaican Steel Drum music, or listen to a Paraguayan harpist. Most of those folks learn all their music exclusively by ear; they absorb it, they live it, they integrate it into their being. For them, counting time in music happens subconsciously  –  and very accurately. Many of them can play polyrhythmic music (one time signature in one hand and another in the other hand, such as 3/4 against 4/4) as easily as they can brush their teeth.

Of course, as I’ve said many times, most musicians would do well to learn by ear and be adept at music-reading. Each is suited to certain styles of music. Don’t judge someone’s musical skills by which way they learn; judge, if you must, by the way they play.

But I digress. So… what can you do about it if you’re rhythmically challenged? Here’s a list:

  • Listen to music for as many hours a day as possible. Try tapping your foot or clapping along.
  • Take dance lessons, such as ballroom dancing, where many different rhythms, tempos and beats are used and you learn to feel them with your whole body.
  • Take African, Cuban and/or Irish drumming lessons, and stick with it until it feels natural. These use a variety of rhythms, and are not as invasive as the big drum sets you hear in rock bands.
  • Take music lessons that focus on learning and using time signatures accurately and confidently.
  • Learn to use a metronome!

Next time  –  “The Metronome: A Love-Hate Relationship”