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A few weeks ago I introduced a series of posts on counting, which is an important issue to me. Counting is all but dead among indie drummers, and the attention to scene-ster fashion that has taken it’s place is going to land the western music world with an unprecedentedly low number of drummers with actual skill.
Psychological research shows that having concrete words to help us identify a concept is a huge component in a firm and accurate understanding of that concept… hence the need for count “names” for the different notes in a measure. So, let’s start with the basics. What are the count names for the commonly used notes? Quarter notes are a familiar one… counted as “1-2-3-4”… etc. 8th notes are also an easy one – counted as “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.” It’s important to address what happens here, though. Technically, 8th notes are just quarter notes, with additional notes played halfway between each quarter. Therefore, while the name of the quarter is a whole number (1,2,3… etc), the halfway mark is known as “and.” This is true ALL THE TIME, whenever the beat (quarter) or the “halfway between a beat” (8th) shows up. Beats are ALWAYS called whole numbers and halfway beats are ALWAYS called “and.” So, in 6/8 time, when the “beat” is now an 8th note and counted as whole number, then the 16th note is the new halfway marker and that would be counted as “and.” This consistency in how we count is key.
Next, we’ve got 16th notes. These are the notes that fall “halfway” between the 8th notes, or better understood as being 25% and 75% markers for the quarter notes. 25% is known as “e” (pronounced like “tree” without the “tr”), and 75% is known as “a” (pronounced: “uh”). Again, these counts need to be consistent if they are going to be helpful, so that means the note that falls at 25% of the distance between counts “1” and “2” will always be counted as “e”… ALWAYS.
Knowing the counts of quarters, 8ths, and 16ths is basic rhythmic theory, but even the basics are out the window for a lot of drummers these days. However, I assume that most readers of this blog were already familiar with those counts. Now… the new ones.
8th note triplets are the triplet notes that fall between straight 8ths and straight 16ths. To clarify, that means a measure of 4/4 contains 12 8th note triplets. How do we count these notes? Mathematically speaking, these notes fall on the quarter counts, and then the 33.3% and 66.6% markers. If we are to be consistent with our counts, then we have to come up with new names for these notes… because those are new percentage markers that we’re dealing with. I grew up in Los Angeles, and my school out there taught me to use “la” (pronounced: “lah”) for the 33.3% note, and “le” (pronounced: “lee”) for the 66.6% note. That seems great to me, and I have never used anything different. However, when I moved to Minnesota in 5th grade, I found my music classmates using a different counting system for 8th triplets. They would say… “1-and-a-2-and-a”… etc. This seems completely worthless to me, and I hope you can see why. The count name “and” has already been used! It’s the 50% marker… and now it’s all of a sudden become the 33.3% marker too? It makes no sense. Same with the “a” count… if it’s the 75% marker in 16th notes then it can’t simultaneously be the 66.6% marker in 8th triplets. So… there’s a logically compelling reason to use “la” and “le” when counting triplets, if you don’t already.
On to 16th triplets… which are somewhat rare but still necessary. The percentage markers of the notes in 16th triplets are: downbeat-16.6%-33.3%-50%-66.6%-83.3%. Now we just need to put count names to each of these… but I hope you can see that most of them already have names. Again, consistency is the important thing in counting, and therefore we don’t need new count names for 33.3% (we already have “la”), 50% (we already have “and”), or 66.6% (we already have “le”). We just need to come up with new names for 16.6% and 83.3%. This is another counting structure where you will find a lot of inconsistency, as I did in both my LA school and my MN school. Out West, they say “1-la-le-and-la-le,” and in Minnesota I was taught to say “1-and-a-and-and-a.” I hope you can see how ridiculous both of these are (especially the MN way). So, in the name of consistency… I made up my own count names that I’ve been using. I call the 16th triplet note at 16.6% “ta”… and the 83.3% note “lo.” I chose these counts because they roll off the tongue easily when you say all the 16th triplets in a row… “1-ta-la-and-le-lo-2-ta-la-and-le-lo”… etc.
SUMMARY: I know this post has been quite wordy and perhaps hard to understand, but I hope it is helpful to at least some of you.
Musical counting (i.e. keeping track of the numerical names of the beats as you play) is a big deal to me. I’m planning on writing a series of posts on counting sometime soon, but for now I’d like to address a couple “myths” about counting…
Myth #1: “Counting will wreck my feel.” I am constantly surprised at how many musicians choose to ignore counting in an effort to “feel” the music instead, as if the two aren’t compatible. There is nothing about counting that will take the feel out of your playing. Everybody should read the previous sentence again because it’s very important, and IT’S TRUE. “Feel” is an aspect of music that comes from the incredible physical power that music has in communicating orientation. The entire crowd at a U2 concert will be able to clap in unison with a song, because everyone in the stadium can FEEL where beats “2” and “4” are (regardless of whether they know that those beats are named “2” and “4”). Counting along with the music will never take the power of music’s feel away.
Myth #2: “It’s too hard for me to play and count at the same time.” This is like saying that it’s too hard for you to both navigate a car and operate a stick shift. Sure, counting along with your grooves is a little tricky to get used to if it’s new to you, and everyone experiences that at first. But this initial difficulty is not a fair justification for never learning to count, especially when you consider the benefits you’ll notice once you take the time to tackle counting.
Watch for more in-depth posts on counting soon…