A Review of Rhythm Counting Systems


Previously, I wrote about rhythm syllable systems. Like solfege, rhythm syllables provide a singable word to verbally associate with the audited sound. I reviewed rhythm syllable systems for Kodaly and Orff oriented classes, as well as French, Gordon, and tamarin I systems. Today I will discuss rhythm counting systems. These differ from syllable systems in that the tactus is assigned a number according to its placement within a measure. As a result, each tactus within the measure is given a different name.

The two most well known counting systems in the United States are the traditional American system, and the Eastman system. The traditional American system counts the beat number on the tactus, & on the half beat, and n-e-&-a for four sixteenth notes, n-&-a for a triplet or three eighth notes in compound meter, where n is the beat number. The Eastman system is similar. The beat numbers are used for the tactus, te for the half beat, and n-ti-te-ta for four sixteenths. Triplets or three eighth notes in compound meter are n-la-li and six sixteenth notes in compound meter is n-ta-la-ta-li-ta. Froseth also developed a similar counting system using n-ne, n-ta-ne-ta, n-na-ni, and n-ta-na-ta-ni-ta. All three systems have internal consistency for all divisions of the beat except the tactus, which changes according to the beat number.

So what is the difference (besides the use of numbers) between syllable systems discussed yesterday, and the counting systems being discussed today? The answer is, each requires a different philosophical assumption on how to teach music reading. The syllable systems can be learned and understood aurally. They are not dependent on seeing notation to make sense. This may sound like an odd statement to make about a device that is supposed to be used for teaching music reading, but in fact it is critical.

For most of the time our music notation system has been in existence, accepted practice on how to teach it has meter signaturesbeen sound before sight. Teach what the music sounds like first, then teach what it looks like in notation. The syllables are consistent with a philosophy that favors teaching sound before sight. They represent what can be heard, and then allow students to carry that understanding over to notation. With the syllables, what the music sounded like with syllables is the same as what it looks like when read with the same syllables.  Incidentally, the same can be said for moveable do, which represents audiated tonality in the same way that rhythm syllables represent audiated meter.

Methods for teaching instrumental music tend to start from the opposite philosophical position. Instrumental methods take a sight before sound approach. (This is also true of fixed do, although as we will presently see, there is not the disconnect between audiated and read pitches that there is between audiated and read meters.) Students are given notation first, and taught how to produce the sound after they read the music. For this approach to succeed, students must know what beat they are on at all times so they can follow the music while still being at a very low “reading level” for music. The solution for many instrumental music teachers is to use a counting system to help students keep their place. Apart from the music, the counting system becomes at times arbitrary. While listening to music, most people can’t distinguish between common time and two-four time, or between three-four time and six-eight time. Counting systems impose a way of understanding heard meter that may or may not reflect the notation they are supposed to represent, or the meter that the listener is perceiving. This becomes confusing for the student who is playing in an ensemble. S/he may be hearing one meter while being forced by a counting system to read a different meter.

I recently encountered this very situation while practicing a transcription for clarinet of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy. A passage is notated in groups of two and four sixteenth notes, without bar lines. Reading the notation, I audiated  the passage as a syncopated alteration between twos and fours. Then I listened to someone else playing it without looking at the notation and immediately realized the passage sounded like constant threes. Returning to my music, I played the passage by ear while reading the notation. A sight-based system would be unable to provide a way of counting this passage as notated, but a syllable system, unencumbered by having to account for beat numbers, can easily accommodate dividing the audiated grouping as a series of triplets. If instrumental methods were taught using a sound before sight approach, as they are presented, for example, in Jump Right In, then there would be no need for counting systems. For vocal, choral, and general music purposes, the syllable systems are preferred, and within syllable systems, beat function ones are preferable.


One thought on “A Review of Rhythm Counting Systems

  1. I was taught in college a system where the best was 1, the immediate subdivision was 2 (and 3, if appropriate), and everything else was “ta.” I wouldn’t use it with young kids or beginners, but I do use it fairly early as a bit of a challenge for those “golden” kids for whom everything comes easy as well as with more advanced students.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s