Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Gaps in our counting system

In the comments on that extremely valuable izquierdadiddles post, a friend of the site from the Czech Republic remarked on stickings in his native language, and on the American system for counting 16th notes:

[We] Czech drummers get to deal with two syllables per hand, making everything sound as if it were meant to be eight-note based.

I never realised the English speaking players had a certain advantage in this regard, but what I am really envious of is your ability to count subdivisions in such an organized manner as one-e-&-a. While it's obvious for you, it's nothing short of genius for us.

He's right— the #-e-&-a system is extremely effective, for reading and singing a rhythm, while relating it to a metric grid. You can get very fluent at playing complex 16th note passages accurately while counting some very fragmented series of numbers, as, es, and &s. I've been doing it so long I don't even know what the alternative systems are.

But the world is imperfect, and our counting system is nevertheless incomplete, and so it's only a partial tool for learning rhythm— combined with playing, and with working personally with teachers, conductors, and other musicians. 

In my music career up until now I've only counted beats using numbers, plus 8th notes using added &s, plus 16th notes using added es and as, plus &-a for triplets and compound 8th notes. For teaching I sometimes need a little bit more. We're talking about counting rhythm only, here— leaving aside counting for keeping track of phrases or form. 

Here are a few of the gray areas, and blank areas, and how I deal with them:  [2023 UPDATE: As I've noted several times below, I've since settled on some better ways of handling these situations.]

More than one &
“And” is a convenient sound to put between two numbers. Yes, the rhythmic & is most familiar as an off beat 8th note (counted 1-&-2-&); but it may also be the middle triplet partial (1-&-a-2-&-a), or middle 8th note in compound meters (e.g. 6/8 or 12/8, also counted 1-&-a-2-&-a). We'll find some other places for it later on. 

Ultimate confusion sets in when we talk about swing 8th notes, where the & falls (broadly) on the last triplet partial, but if we happen to play a triplet in that setting, the middle triplet partial is also called &:

When talking through jazz rhythms, I deal with that by distinguishing between the swing & and the triplet &. Most people get it.  

You could avoid that ambiguity by counting triplets 1-tri-plet-2-tri-plet— sometimes I do. But I'm put off by all those flammy consonant clusters. It's also just kind of childish to be saying the name of the rhythm while counting it, like: 



Forget it. 

I consider sixtuplets to be generally uncountable, and I never count them— except one time, very slowly, for students who have never played them:

1-tri-plet-&-tri-plet, or 1-&-a-&-&-a

[2023 UPDATE: lately I'll count sixtuplets 1-ada-an-ada— it works very well.]

When playing sixtuplets, I count 8th notes. When counting or singing a rhythmic passage, I'll sing something like digada-digada for any sixtuplets in the passage. Digada-dat for a single 16th triplet followed by a release. 

32nd notes
I also do not count 32nd notes, and do count 8th notes while playing them. They're usually played too fast to say a syllable for each note, or to differentiate the partials during a complex 32nd note passage. 

On complex passages (like you see in some etudes in Portraits in Rhythm), we just apply our acquired knowledge of 16th note rhythms, in double time, without counting. A few times in my teaching career, for a student, I've probably counted them out as 1-e-&-a-&-e-&-a.

Again, when counting through a passage, I may sing 32nd notes as diga-diga-diga-diga-datdiga-diga-datdiga-dat:

[2023: It's crazy, but you can simply add an a or da in between the normal 1e&a syllables: 1-da-e-da-&-a-a-da. Thankfully there's rarely a need to count a lot of 32nd notes fast.]

16th notes in compound meters
That's 6/8, 12/8, 9/8, etc. I've never seen a good system for this, or any system, which may be a hindrance to people becoming fluent in this area of rhythm. We also just don't see much of this type of thing day to day. Usually we just deal with it as best we can knowing what we already know about rhythm. When you know something about rhythm, and use it all the time, that's not difficult.  

To precisely block out rhythms for students new to these meters, I'll sometimes count them out in 6, or 12, or whatever the top number of the meter is: 


That's the only time I count that way. In compound meters generally the dotted-quarter beats are counted, or dotted quarter notes plus the major subdivision: 1-&-a-2-&-a, as in one of the examples above.

After thinking about it for a few minutes just now, I may phase in something like 1-e-&-a-&-a:

I just counted through a couple of snare drum pieces in 6/8 that way, and I like it a lot. It's a little weird to call the last 8th note in a beat a when there are only 8th notes involved, and calling it & when there are any 16th notes in that beat. And there's some ambiguity in having two &s and two as, but it's far superior to the alternatives. It took me about five minutes to become fluent with it. Open up your Podemski/Goldenberg/Peters and give it a try. 

[2023: More recently I've settled on 1-e-&-a-a-da. If one were using trip let syllables in compound meters, there's even a way to make that work.]

Odd tuplets
This  is the first time I've ever thought about it, but you can try these out: 

16th note 5s: 1-e-&-a-da
16th note 7s: 1-e-&-a-&-a-da 
8th note 5s: 1-&-a-&-a
8th note 7s: I don't know, man. 1-&-a-&-a-&-a 

Hell, why not: 
32nd note 9s or 16th note 9s (triplets nested in a quarter note triplet): 1-&-a-&-a-da-&-a-da

Those all work great. They're nice and flowing, and are easy enough to say fast, that there's no reason not to use them. 


Ted Warren said...

Check out how you're counting sextuplet. I really Digada Dat!

Todd Bishop said...

six teenth notes are fun e & a

Ted Warren said...


Vashkar said...

6/8 count 8th notes 123 count 16th notes 1&2&3&

Anonymous said...

These posts are great Todd, thanks for sharing. I have a question - how do you count 12/8 ? I was taught to count 123 456 789 101112, but its too muddy. Can they be counted as 1&a 2&a 3&a 4&a and as 16th's like 1e&a&a 2e&a&a etc.... ?

Todd Bishop said...

12/8 is compound 4-- meaning it's a triplet feel, counted in 4. Count it 1&a 2&a 3&a 4&a.

I count 16th notes in 12/8 (or any other /8 meter) 1e&a&a 2e&a&a etc. Yes, it's inconsistent with the 1&a 2&a syllables, it doesn't matter.

See my other counting posts for more on that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, thats a lot easier than the standard method, which just leads to getting tongue tied, and ultimately making it more difficult to assimulate the rhythms.
Am I right in thinking 3/8 would simply be 1&a |1&a|...?

Anonymous said...

Thinking about sixteenth triplets and another post on your sight. I do not like 1-law-lee for eight note triplets, but I have been having some success with it for sixteenth triplets “1-law-lee-&-law-lee”. I’ve used it primarily for Wilcoxon’s 150 solos to help students break down triplet based 7 stroke rolls, ratamacues, etc.

Todd Bishop said...

Anon 1: 3/8 I would count 1&a 1&a, although it seems to be counted in 3 fairly often-- more often than I expect 6/8 to be counted in 6.

Anon 2: Whatever works in the lesson-- but I can't say those fast at all. I need harder consonants.