If you’ve even heard someone talking some strange gibberish like “1 e and a 2 e and a” or seen a rhythm written down and thought “I have no idea what this means” — this post is for you!

Most of the time when we’re drumming, we’re playing notes that are smaller than one beat. Dividing a beat into smaller parts allows us to play more interesting rhythms, but reading them can seem a little daunting.

Counting is an important tool. It helps us communicate with other musicians, navigate written music and work out rhythms in the music that we’re listening to.

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In this lesson, I’m going to explain how to count the most common notes that you’re likely to encounter.

How to count quarter notes (aka crotchets)

Counting quarter notes is easy. Each quarter note beat gets a number. If there are four beats in the bar, you count up to four (like in the example below). If there are five beats in the bar, you count to five.

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How to count eighth notes (aka quavers)

With 8th notes, we’re splitting each quarter note into two equal parts. The downbeat, the “1 2 3 4”, and the offbeat or upbeat, the “+”s or “ands”. So we count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”.

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How to count sixteenth notes (aka semiquavers)

Now things get a little more complicated. Here, we’re dividing each quarter note or beat into four equal parts. Alternatively we can think of it as dividing each 8th note into two equal parts. The “e” and “a” fit in the gaps between each downbeat and offbeat.We count “1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a”.

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How to count thirty-second notes (aka demisemiquavers)

With 32nd notes, we’re dividing each quarter note beat into eight equal parts, or each 8th note into four equal parts, or each 16th note into two equal parts.

Fortunately we don’t have to count 32nd notes very often. In most cases they’re just too fast to count anyway. If you’re in a situation where you need to count them, I have two options for you.

Option 1:

Count the underlying 16th notes. You count “1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a”, but play a note in the gap between each count.

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Option 2:

Double up your count. Rather than leaving a gap in your counting like we did above, the second 32nd note of each 16th note gets the same count as the first 32nd note. “1 e and a 2 e and a” becomes “1 1 e e and and a a 2 2 e e and and a a”.

This isn’t the most elegant solution but it works for me. If you have a better one, I’d love to hear it!

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How to count eighth note triplets (aka quaver triplets)

With 8th note triplets (commonly referred to as just triplets) we’re subdividing each quarter note into three equal parts. Three 8th note triplets will take up exactly the same amount of time as one quarter note or two regular 8th notes.

Here we count “1 trip let 2 trip let 3 trip let 4 trip let”. Alternatively you could count “1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a”. I prefer the first option as it avoids confusion with the “and”s and “a”s we use when counting 16th notes.

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How to count sixteenth note triplets (aka sextuplets)

16th note triplets, or sextuplets as I tend to call them, are one of my favourite subdivisions.

With sextuplets we’re dividing a quarter note into six equal parts, an 8th note into three equal parts or a triplet into two equal parts. That makes sextuplets a very versatile subdivision. They crop up in songs built on 8th notes as well as songs built on triplets.

We can count them “1 trip let and trip let 2 trip let and trip let” etc.

To help connect your sextuplets to the notes that sounds them, you can emphasise how you count them in the following ways:

Count “1 trip let and trip let 2 trip let and trip let” to emphasise the 8th notes.

Or count 1 trip let and trip let 2 trip let and trip let” to emphasise the triplets.

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How do we count combinations of different types of notes?

Most of the time we aren’t just playing one type of note at a time, we’re combining 8th notes, 16th notes, triplets and more. This makes reading and counting the rhythms a little more difficult. We’ll look at this another time. I’ll update this post with a link when that lesson is live!

If you have any counting questions or rhythms you need help with, leave a comment below.

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