Common Time

10.08.2017 |

Episode #4 of the course How to play the drums to (almost) every song you’ve ever heard by Dylan DePice


You may be wondering: is every song really written in this counting-four format?

Absolutely not. But most of the songs you’re likely to have heard in your lifetime really were. This counting four thing is so common, it’s actually called common time.

What is common time? You already know it: four beats to a measure.

There’s a great deal of debate about why common time is so pervasive. Without getting into or taking sides on why common time is so common, suffice it to say that most pop music comes from the West and is inspired primarily by other Western pop music. So, by learning common time, you’re learning the basis of most of the music you’ve ever heard.

The important point for our purposes: most songs you want to know how to count are in four and you know how to count four. Nice.

Similarly, you may be wondering: is every musician I know really counting throughout every song, like you’re telling me to?

Absolutely not. Not consciously, at least. But counting is still the backbone of these songs. I’ll prove it to you. Here are a few examples of songs that start with the artist counting the rhythm:

• “Hey Ya” by Outkast (Spotify/YouTube)

• “Raspberry Beret” by Prince (Spotify/YouTube)

• “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” by the Beatles (Spotify/YouTube)

You’ve heard this type of thing before. At the beginning of a song, it’s called a count off (or a count in.) Bands do this on songs that start with multiple people playing at once, so everyone knows when to start and how fast to play.

(Of course, you don’t need a count off in a song like “Hey Ya,” which doesn’t have a real band. But if you’ve ever seen the music video, you know that the song is supposed to feel like it’s a real band. So, André 3000 started the song with a count in so it feels like there’s a real band because he knows that real musicians count!)

Then there are the songs that have nonverbal count-ins, like “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead (Spotify/YouTube) or “Back in Black” by AC/DC (Spotify/YouTube). More than just announcing the rhythm to the musicians, these also prime the listener to feel the rhythm of the song. That’s probably why Pharrell puts a nonverbal four count at the beginning of just about every hit he’s ever produced (as Genius demonstrated). Even if musicians aren’t audibly or even consciously counting throughout every song, the songs are still rooted in common time. Once you train yourself to feel common time intuitively, you won’t need to count anymore either.

But even then, counting comes in handy. Musicians rely on this language of counting to talk to each other about specific parts of the song. For example, one might say something like, “drop out after four bars.” Or, here’s one we’ll get to later: “Add bass drum on the and of three.”

But that’s jumping a few lessons ahead. We haven’t even talked about the bass drum yet. That’s tomorrow. In the meantime, focus on tightening up what you already know how to do:

1. Count 8th notes, and play the snare on 2 and 4.

2. Count 8th notes, and play the hi-hat on every 8th note.

3. Combine both.

4. Do it in rhythm.



Recommended book

Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer: A Crash Course in All Musical Styles for Drumset by Jim Riley


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