How to Count (1/4 notes, 1/8th notes, 1/8th note triplets, 16th notes)

To become a great musician you need to improve your rhythm and time.

One of the first steps on this journey is simply learning how to count quarter notes, 8th notes, 8th note triplets, and 16th notes.

Now if you have PTSD from your high school math class, don’t freak out, just stay with me here. It’s not that hard . You only need to know how to count to 4 .

MOST popular music is in what’s called “common time” and what is written the “4/4” time signature.

What that basically means is that you can count to 4 over and over again in rhythm with the music, and it feels good, and it makes sense.

Each collection of 4 beats is called a BAR, or a MEASURE of time.

So what a “4/4” time signature means is simply:

:arrow_right: Each bar has 4 beats

:arrow_right: We call each beat “a quarter note.”

So the quarter-note pulse is simply counting along with the music, “ 1 ,2,3,4, 1 ,2,3,4…” I put the number 1 in bold font because it is naturally where we feel the accent when we count.

To count 8th notes , we put 2 notes in each beat, so we total 8 per bar. The easy and common way to do this is to say, “ 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and,1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and…” Importantly, the numbers stay in the same place whether we count quarters or eighths. The words “and” come exactly halfway between each number.

To count 8th note triplets , simply put 3 notes in each beat, so we total 12 per bar. The easiest way to do this is to count, “ 1-trip-let, 2-trip-let, 3-trip-let, 4-trip-let, 1-trip-let, 2-trip-let, 3-trip-let, 4-trip-let…”

:bulb: Note: it’s very awkward to go from counting 8th notes where we divide the beat in half (with the word “and”) to 8th note triplets where we divide the beat into thirds (with the words “trip” and “let.”)

To count 16th notes , we put 4 notes in each beat, so we total 16 per bar. The easiest way to do that is to count, “ 1 ee and ah, 2 ee and ah, 3 ee and ah, 4 ee and ah, 1 ee and ah, 2 ee and ah, 3 ee and ah, 4 ee and ah…”

Note that the numbers and the “and” words are in the same place as when we count 8th notes, and the “ee” and “ah” come exactly halfway between the numbers and the “and” words.

And this is in fact how we musicians will talk to each other. For example, since the first beat consists of these 4 subidvisions:

:one: Beat “1”

:two: The “ee” of 1

:three: The “and” of 1

:four: The “ah” of 1

Someone might say something like, you’re coming in too early. That riff doesn’t happen until the “ah” of 1 you keep playing it on the “and.”

Confusing the heck out of you? Check out my short video here.

These are vital concepts to understand, and vital language to learn in order to level up your musicianship, and it’s all baked into my Beginner to Boss course in small, bite-sized bits.


A harmonica player from the Beginner to Boss course recently commented how frustrated he was trying to play 1/8 note triplets. That’s a good sign! These are 2 separate worlds:

:earth_africa: The world of subdivisions divisible by 2 (called duple pulse or duple meter = quarters, 8ths, 16ths…)

:earth_americas:The world of subdivisions divisible by 3 (called triple pulse, or triple meter = quarter note triplets, 8th note triplets…)

In fact they’re not just different worlds, they’re DIFFERENT GALAXIES, and if it doesn’t feel challenging to you to switch, then you’re probably not playing close enough attention! :rofl::joy::upside_down_face::wink:

One great way to feel the difference between these 2 different galaxies is to play them at the same time which is often referred to as feeling 2 against 3 which I take about in this groove secret that’s “not difficult”.

I hope that helps you begin to consider the gravity of the 2-feel against the 3-feel. :muscle:t4:

Onwards and upwards…