Counting and Keeping Time

Part 1 - Keeping Time with a Metronome

Keeping time is one of the most important fundamental skills for every musician, whether you play solo or with others. This section contains exercises you can use to evaluate and improve your counting and timekeeping in music.

The first step to developing good time is to clap along with a metronome. This is much harder than it sounds: the key to success is to practise for a few minutes every day. After a few weeks you should see a big improvement in your performance

You should use a metronome that clicks rather than making a beep or flashing - this way you can aim to "bury" the click by clapping so accurately in time with it that the sound from your hands covers that of the metronome. With practice you will start to notice that the sound of the metronome seems to fade in and out as you clap along. When you are perfectly in time, you shouldn't hear the metronome at all.

If you don't have a clicking metronome to hand, you can use the following soundclips, which contain 64 bars of metronome clicks in 4/4 time at various tempos (bpm = beats per minute).

(Only three examples are given here - 8 more are available for subscribers, giving a range of tempos from 40 bpm (very slow) to 240 bpm (very fast). Click on the links above to subscribe or log in.)

60 bpm:
100 bpm:
140 bpm:

Once you have started to master clapping in time with the metronome, try playing along with the click on your instrument. You can play whatever you like - scales, arpeggios, a tune you know, or just improvise freely. It doesn't need to be complicated, the point is to practise playing so that the notes on the beat are exactly on the beat. You should record yourself doing this regularly and listen carefully to the recording. Are you rushing (playing ahead of the beat)? Or dragging (playing after the beat)? Unlike clapping, where you can tell that you are exactly in time because the clicks seem to disappear, it is quite hard to tell while you are playing if you are exactly in time with the metronome, so recording and listening back is an important part of the process.

Note that while being able to play in time with the metronome is an important skill, it does not mean that you should always play with such rigid timing. Indeed, music that is always perfectly in time, such as a simply programmed MIDI file on a computer, soon sounds robotic and unmusical. The point of being able to play with the metronome is so that you can be in control of your timing and play ahead of or behind the beat, speed up, or slow down as a conscious choice.

The next section contains further exercises in counting and time keeping, including keeping time with dotted and triplet rhythms, compound time signatures, counting notes and rests of different lengths, and keeping time over rests lasting more than one bar. A few examples are presented free - please subscribe or login at the top of the page to access the complete set of exercises.