New & Improved Counting System for 12/8 time

Here is my my new improved counting system for 12/8 time  The system is based on my previous system   but there are several improvements which make the new system far superior.

I have given the previous counting system for 12/8 time some thought and there were 2 main issues that I regarded as slightly flawed. Fundamentally the system does work but I believed that it could be better. The first thing I did not like about the system was the count.  Remember that it used a 1-6 count.  This is correct for dividing the 3 x1/8th note quavers into each of the 4 beats of dotted crochet 1/4 notes. 3 quavers results in 6 semiquavers ( 1/16 th notes) or 2 x semiquavers = 1 quaver. So far everything good. However what I dislike is the 1-6 count itself. I take issue with the 3 (th-ree) of this count in particular. 3 or thr-ee is not efficient enough because it lengthy and difficult to pronounce over and over. This can result in a lopsided count which puts too much emphasis on the 3 (three) of the count. Some 3 s are of course a necessity but lets keep it down to just  1 in each bar and not on every beat of every bar.

Also what I disliked about the previous counting system for 12/8 time was that in  a 1-6 count there is no repetition at all of any number value. These are all quite individual numbers so you have to remember them all. You also expect to hear or may have become accustomed to hearing 1-6 counted in a sequence. Because this is so endemic and emphasised it is difficult to break with this habit and alter the sequence to suit your needs or to make it more adaptable. Quite simple in real life but repeating them over and again might be a chore. Lastly what I disliked was that it was difficult to abbreviate the system and break it down into smaller chunks that you could learn by rote. Condensing the system into short phrases that would become automatic recognition over time was an important consideration for the system to work efficiently. This would not be possible in a sequential count because you would have to always make reference to the sequential order of the count to know where you were by constantly referring back to it. This was not automatic enough for me. So these are areas which I have addressed and improved in this new version of the system.

Improved counting system for 12/8 time

So lets get down to it. The new counting  system for 12/8 time which  I have devised goes back to a more traditional approach to counting in 1/16th note semiquavers. Instead of 1-2-3 etc this system uses another approach that you may be familiar with of 1-e-&-a. This then accounts for 4 of the 6 quavers (1/8th note) pulses that you encounter in the 6 x 1/16th note pulse. the 1-e-&-a method is used mainly in 4/4 time to subdivide the 1/4 beat crochet into a groups of semiquaver pulse. this is where you will find it used most often. So I quickly understood that to make it fit with the 12/8 time and 3 x 1/8 th note pulse of the dotted crochet then it had to be adapted in some way by adding 2 more notes. I have achieved this by adding to it and including some repetition. We have to make this 4 segment pulse of 1-e-&-a extend to a 6 segment pulse  I have done this thus by adding 2 x more 1/16th notes to the count.

                               Previous Counting Method

1-2-3-4-5-6             2-2-3-4-5-6                3-2-3-4-5-6           4-2-3-4-5-6

                       New Improved Version

1-e-&-a-3-e             2-e-&-a-3-e                 3-e-&-a-3-e          4-e-&-a-3-e 

The pulse can also be used in its basic form if you don’t really need to know where in the bar or song you actually are which is often a good strategy to use whilst improvising and gives us less to worry about other than keeping time. So 1-e-&-a-3-e  can simply be repeated over and over as  1-e-&-a-3-e, 1-e-&-a-3-e, 1-e-&-a-3-e .

Some points to note about the Counting System for 12/8 time. The 12/8 pulse beat which can be tapped out by the foot also occurs on the 1 then on the  & and finally on the 3 of the count. This may not seem important but it helps serve as a Compass to allow us to recognise exactly where the beats of the  1-2-3 count are occurring even when we start to break this beat up into dotted 1/8th and 1/16 notes. It tells us when a pulse is finishing and a new pulse is going to begin.This also helps when breaking the rhythm down into shortcuts. For example with a dotted 1/8th note if it occurs on the beat can be counted by using the shortcut of  either 1-e-& , &-a-3, or off the beat as e-&-a, or a-3-e, depending on whereabouts it occurs in the 3x 1/8th note span. 2 dotted 1/8ths over a 3 x 1/8th span would be counted as repetition of the basic 1-e-&. So 1-e-&, 1-e-&. These shortcuts will become clearer in the following visual representations. Shortcuts are  inside brackets. 

You will notice that in some of the shortcuts that I am using, I use a Hybrid Counting Method which makes use of the 1/8th note count and the 1/16th note count explained above. The 2 methods can be amalgamated together to make this Hybrid Counting Method. You can do this switching between an 1/8th note count and a 1/16th note count. All the Shortcuts are bracketed in the Downloadable Example Sheet.

New counting improved for 12-8 time 1New Method Counting2_8 New Method Guitar vrs is a downloadable .pdf which outlines the system to get you started. It outlines the note values and the associated count that goes along with them. It gives examples of complex rhythms and compound rhythms in 12/8 time.

Here is the audio to accompany the sheet.

You will notice that I have stuck to using only one note in this example of my counting system for 12/8 time. This is to intentional to make it as simple as possible and about the rhythm only. It makes it easier to practice with focusing on one note only you can concentrate solely on the rhythms.

There is a further Adaptation in the counting system for 12/8 time that you can apply to this system of counting. If the note falls on  the first beat of the 3 x 1/8th note pulse 1-2-3  and it is a straight 1/8th note then this can be replaced with (1) from the Hybrid Count which represents a single 1/8th note. Following on from this you can apply an additional shortcut to the following beats falling on 2 and 3 respectively as a simple repetition of a very familiar count 1-e-&-a. So we have (1)-1-e-&-a which now covers the 3 x 1/16th note pulse of a dotted1/8th.  It is often very convenient to draw on the things we know well.

Further Refinements for the dotted 1/8th notes 

There is one further refinement that we can make to our Shortcut method. If you remember the shortcut method is a way of making it easier to count our dotted 1/8th notes. We can count the dotted 1/8th in a number of SHORTCUT ways and this may depend on where they occur in the 3 x 1/8th beat span. So for example we had 2 dotted 1/8th, each of which is equal to 3 x 1/16th notes we could count them as 1-e-& and repeat this for the second dotted 1/8th.

1-e-&  ,     1-e-&

This is all well and good as long as there is symmetry. If the dotted 1/8th occurs on pulse 2 of the 3 x 1/8th beat pulse then the Shortcut would be 

&- a -3 

This is more awkward. However the really awkward situations occur when you are beginning the dotted 1/8th notes on the syncopated beat. By this I mean the syncopated 1/16th note that falls between the main 1-2-3 of the 1/8th note pulse. When we count from these as dotted 1/8th notes we have a situation whereby the beat that falls between the 1 and the 2 . If we started our dotted 1/8th here then the result would be that we have to count e-&-a. If the beat starts between 2 and 3 we count this dotted 1/8th as a-3-e. Slightly Awkward I think you will agree.

To prevent this we can refine our system further to cope better with dotted 1/8th notes that occur on the syncopated beats by always using the Shortcut 1-e-&.  It is better to start on a stronger part of the phrase rather than the ‘e’ or the ‘a’. It just has a better feel to it.

We can do this by making some minor adjustments to our system. For Example if the phrase started with a 1/16th note and our dotted 1/8th note occurs at the end between beats 2 and 3 (in this case a 1/16th note will always be at the start) then we simply start our count with ‘&’ . So for phrases which begin with a 1/16th note we should always start with ‘&’

What I have done is moved the last & of the 1_e_& from the last position and moved it to the front starting position. This makes more sense and gives a better feel when the straight 1/8th note (or a dotted 1/8th) immediately follows the starting 1/16th note.  If the starting 1/16th note is immediately followed by a straight 1/8th note then no further adjustment is needed. By association the ‘1_e’ will fit with a full 1/8th note. Now you can easily see, hear and feel where the full 1/8th fits into the pattern of notes and is aligned by the count itself. However you could also continue to use the ‘1_e_& if you want. So there is flexibility to use it however it suits you best.

The next suggested adjustment would be when the phrase starts with a 1/16th note but this is immediately followed by a dotted 1/8th note (see Bars 7 and 8 of the Example Sheet I have provided). To make the count best fit this circumstance it may be better to revert back to the 1-e-&-a count which covers 4 x 1/16th notes since a dotted 1/8th + 1/16th  is equal to 4 x 1/16ths which leaves one full 1/8th note at the end of the phrase. Under these circumstances the 1_e_&_a 3 _e count fits very well. Taking the part 1 e & a  of this count we can make it  better suited to start on 1/16th followed by a dotted 1/8th. Remember that we are trying to make each dotted 1/8th align with the count of 1-e-&. So to do this we need to adjust it by bringing the a’ of the 1-e-&-a to the start. By doing this the ‘1-e-&‘ now aligns correctly with the dotted 1/8th. we get the count a1-e-&.


All in all it is better to count any phrases where dotted 1/8ths occur using two repetitions of 1_e_&.If the phrase began on a full 1/8th note I would prefer to start the pattern by counting with ‘1_e_& where the ‘1_e part covers the 1/8th note and the & refers to the 1/16th. If the phrase began on a 1/16th note I would prefer to use ‘&_1_e‘ method where the & represents the 1/16th note and the 1_e still represents the straight 1/8th note. If the phrase begins on a 1/16th but is immediately followed by the dotted 1/8th then the 1-e-&-a count fits better but needs to be adjusted to a-1-e-&. Where the 1-e-& part aligns with the dotted 1/8th note.

Finally you may prefer to just use the count of 1_e_& consistently and repeat this over the full 6 x 1/16th note count instead of the 1_e_&_a 3 _e method that I suggested at the beginning of the lesson. This may now seem like a contradiction but in reality it isn’t because you may be familiar and accustomed to counting 1/16ths in 4/4 time as 1-e-&-a which covers 2 x 1/8th note beat.  In fact the 1-e-&-a method seems to fits better where the phrase starts on a 1/16th and is immediately followed by the dotted 1/8th or where the sum of the 2 notes is equal to 4 x 1/16th notes. The 1_e_&_a 3 _e   is just an adaptation of this method to fit across the 3 x 1/8th note (6 x 1/16th) span. The 1_e_& method probably fits better with 12/8 time signatures in general and can be adapted to &_1_e where the first note is a 1/16th note and the next note is a straight 1/8th, but this system has some problems when a dotted 1/8th note occurs on the syncopated beat between beats 1 and 2 of the 3 x 1/8th note pulse (ie: where a dotted 1/8th immediately follows a 1/16th note). This is because the sum of the 2 notes actually equals 4 x 1/16th notes so 1-e-& is a note short so doesn’t fit well. To make a shortcut under these circumstances it is better to revert to 1-e-&-a.


Here I provided a downloadable pdf explaining the counting method & giving practical examples

Here is accompanying Audio

Rule of thumb for counting dotted 1/8ths in 12/8 time

The count of 2 x 1-e-& ( equivalent of 2 dotted 1/8th notes) will suffice under most circumstances except where a dotted 1/8th note immediately follows a 1/16th note ( where the 1/16th is starting the phrase ie; where the dotted 1/8th occurs on the syncopated beat of beat 1). For these events a count of 1-e-&-a  or a1-e-& is best used. See Bar 1 in the graphic below for visual explanation. I would suggest using the a1-e-& because it retains the value of the dotted 1/8th as 1-e-& which has become the recognisable shortcut assigned to any dotted 1/8th. When this occurs then you know exactly when the dotted 1/8th is being played.

Otherwise where a dotted 1/8th occurs as either a starting note or an ending note in the 3 x 1/8th beat pulse then the count of 1-e-& ( x 2) will work best.

Where a dotted 1/8th falls squarely on the Beat 2 of the 3 x 1/8th pulse (ie; not on the syncopated part of the beat). This is where the dotted 1/8th is preceded by either an 1/8th note or the equivalent of an 1/8th ( 2 x 1/16ths for example) then use the 1-e-&-a count, starting the count on the dotted 1/8th. For the preceding 1/8th note use either a shortcut 1/8 (1) or 1 -e

.For a visual example see below in Bar 2.

visual explanation detailing rule of thumb for counting time in dotted 1/8th notes
Breakdown of rules for counting dotted 1/8th notes

Counting dotted 8s pdf vrs of above.


I hope you have enjoyed this lesson and found it useful Please come back later to see any new developments.

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