Counting marks are used as an aid to learning the rhythm of a part. They appear underneath the stave, in line with the appropriate note as a series of numbers and letters. Whilst learning the appropriate counting for each rhythm can take some time, using it can drastically speed up the learning process. Counting marks are usually shown as standard in beginner pieces but as you progress in your playing you will see them less and less. It is very rare that they are included in song transcriptions. It can be very useful to get into the habit of adding these into a piece of music yourself if they aren't there already.
If we wanted to count Crotchets (Quarter Notes) in a bar of 4/4 (see time signatures sheet) we would count '1 2 3 4', where each sound is said at the same rhythm. We can use this count to add in more notes, to create faster rhythms. We can also use them as a way to count longer, slower notes. As we play faster rhythms more sounds are added in between each number. So if we play Quavers (Eighth Notes) in a bar of 4/4 we will add an 'and' in between each number, giving us '1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +' (where '+' is said as 'and'). Again each sound is said at the same speed, and the numbers will remain at the same speed as before.
When we step up to Semi Quavers (Sixteenth Notes) in 4/4, more sounds are added in between the numbers and 'ands'. After the number we will get 'e' (said 'E') and after the 'and' we get 'a' (said 'Ah'). This gives us '1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a'.
In the above description we started out with a straight count of '1 2 3 4' and then split these counts into smaller 'sub counts'. This is known as Subdivision and is the basis for the theory behind all Note Values.
Counting is derived from the bottom number of a Time Signature. The most common numbers you will see here are 4 and 8. When the time signature has a 4 on the bottom it is telling you that the groupings are in quarter notes and counting here works in the way outlined above. When the number is an eight it is telling you to use eighth notes as a base point for counting. So in a bar of 6/8, rather than counting '1 + 2 + 3 +' you would count '1 2 3 4 5 6' then add '+' counts for 16th notes. This may seem confusing right now but as you learn more about time signatures it will become much clearer. Explanations of how to count each time signature will be given as they crop up in lessons.
This is just a brief explanation to clarify the concept. A detailed guide to what counting should be used for what rhythms will be found on the Introduction to Note Values page. Rhythms aren't always made up of the same note value, you will end up using different variations of the above countings. A guide for this is also provided on the site.
The following lessons and quizzes are available on counting: