Thursday, January 12, 2012

Learning to count (a simple guide to time signatures)

Perhaps the most important skill I use when playing bass doesn't have anything to do with the instrument itself. As a rhythm instrument, staying in rhythm is pretty damn important. To stay in rhythm, locked in with a drummer, I count.

Do I constantly count? Well, no. I've internalized it. But when I'm learning a new song, or working on a difficult passage, you can bet I'm focused on counting out the notes.

(This post isn't a replacement for learning to read music, which I think any serious bass player should do. For a deeping delving into musical theory and bass guitar, I recommend reading the Hal Leonard Bass Method books by Ed Friedland.)

I highly recommend using a metronome to practice your counting. The metronome doesn't lie-- it'll keep you honest and accurate when counting.

So, what do you need to know about counting to keep time? In my opinion, not that much.

Time Signatures

95% of the songs that most rock, country, and R&B bassists are going to play are going to be in 4/4 time. Essentially, 4/4 time means that there are four beats in a measure (or "bar" as it is occasionally known) and that each of those beats are a quarter note (the "/4" of the time signature). So in 4/4 time, you count from one to four. Each of those beats is a quarter note.

Compare this 3/4 time (you might know it as "waltz" time). 3/4 time has three beats in a measure, and each of those beats is a quarter note. So 3/4 time is counted "1... 2... 3... 1... 2... 3... "

But 95% of everything you want to play will be in 4/4 time, which is four beats a measure.  This is counted "1... 2... 3... 4... 1... 2... 3... 4..."

Whole, half, and quarter notes

So what's this quarter note business? Well, technically it's kind of arbitrary and dependent on the time signature, but for our purposes you can just treat a quarter note as one beat as long as the time signature is some variation of */4.

If there are quarter notes, there must be whole notes, right? Of course there are. And as you might expect, a whole note is four times as long as a quarter note. A whole note lasts four beats, which in 4/4 time is also an entire measure. To count a whole note, simply count for four beats.

You also have half notes. A half note is two beats. Count two beats for this one.

To review:
  • Whole = 4 beats
  • Half = 2 beats
  • Quarter = 1 beat
8th notes

So far, all the notes we've talked about can be counted using a simple "1... 2... 3... 4..." style. Once we have notes that are subdivisions of a single beat, we need to change our counting pattern.

Perhaps the most common sustained pattern in rock music is a root note of a chord played as eighth notes. This one goes a long way. To count sustatined eighth notes, we add a subdivision to our counting pattern, so we have two syllables per beat. So, to count eighth notes we say "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and..."

16th notes

For the speedy stuff, we need to count in sixteenth notes. To do this, we need to double the syllables we were using per beat from two ("1 and") to four ("1 e and ah"). This might sound a bit awkward at first, but it gets you counting in sixteenth notes.

(Note that counting eighth notes at a tempo of 160 beats per minute (bpm) is the same as counting sixteenth notes at a tempo of 80 bpm.)


The last kind of note to consider counting are triplets. Triplets are a single beat divided into three parts. This is a departure from the previous kind of notes we talked about, these aren't a multiple of two. But, as you might guess from the name, counting a triplet just requires you to divide each beat into three parts. We've already got the syllables for this: "1 and ah 2 and ah 3 and ah 4 and ah..."

Tied together notes

Often you'll hear a note that's three beats long or a beat and a half. In musical notation, these notes are considered "tied." Essentially, they're a combination of whole, half, quarter, eighth, sisxteenth, or triplet notes. Count like normal through them and you should stay on rhythm.

That should be enough to get you started counting. Have questions? Leave a comment!

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