Learning to read music isn't especially difficult when compared with the skill, knowledge, and nuances required to play a musical instrument. Primarily it is a skill developed by practice and repetition, accompanied by a knowledge of the necessary music theory to understand it. Nevertheless, there are vast cohorts of musicians that eschew reading, preferring to play by ear. Depending on your style and background, you may be one of the many great musicians who have learned to play entirely by ear or who use written music as a transcription and study tool, but not during live performance. But having an understanding of the underlying theory is essential to communicating with other musicians in all styles. This series will cover the basic essential music theory you will need to function with competence even if you never learn to read music.
Time Signatures and Counting Subdivisions
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of music theory is counting. For this reason, musicians have their own unique way of counting which allows an infinite variety of rhythms and rhythmic styles. Even if the band doesn't read music, it is crucial to understand the Time Signature of the music. The Time Signature is indicated on written music at the left side of each staff by two numbers, one over the other.
The top number indicates how many beats per measure, and the bottom number indicates what type of note gets one beat. The example above is the most common time signature, 4/4. When the drummer calls 1-2-3-4, they are giving you one bar of quarter notes ahead of the downbeat. Because it is often necessary to count bars for each section of music, most musicians use the first count of each bar to keep track of the bar number: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4 etc. When you encounter other time signatures, the process is the same. For example, 6/8 has six eighth notes per bar (in two groups of three): 1-2-3 4-5-6, 2-2-3 4-5-6. The beats are organized into groups of three to denote the triplet feel of the music. 12/8 time is common in blues and other styles with a triplet or shuffle feel, counted as groups of 8th note triplets: 1-&-a, 2-&-a, 3-&-a, 4-&-a... (4 groups of 3 eighth notes, 12 total).
Once you understand the time signature, your next task is to learn how to count out subdivisions. These allow musicians to communicate rhythm figures with great precision.
Counting out time signatures is only the beginning of counting subdivisions. The process is simple: determine the type of note that gets one beat, and then subdivide the beat to the smallest denominator. In the 12/8 bar above, a dotted quarter note (3 counts) gets one beat as shown in the bass clef part. The smallest (shortest) note in the bar is an eighth note as shown on the treble clef. If you encounter smaller subdivisions, there is a count for each. Sixteenth notes in 4/4 are counted 1-ee-& uh, 2-ee-&-uh, 3-ee-&-uh, 4-ee-&-uh etc. The notes are counted into groups a single count long. The chart below shows how to count the common groupings and some syncopations as well.
Counting subdivisions allows every player in the band to play complex rhythms accurately, even if they have never played together before. It is also extremely useful when using modern tablature for guitar or bass.
The traditional folk song Greensleeves, as shown above, helps demonstrate the concept of subdivisions. Notice that although the piece is in 6/8, there is a single eighth note pickup before the downbeat, played on the 6th beat of the count-off bar. The bold numbers indicate where to play the note above.
Knowing Time Signatures and Subdivisions will help you to lock into the rhythm of the music with more confidence, even if the band doesn't use written music. With a little study and practice, these skills will become second nature and you won't even have to think about them. In the next article, we'll learn about Key Signatures and how to determine the native chords and scales in every key. Meanwhile, find a good method book on reading rhythm figures and practice counting as you play.
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