And the rest is . . .

Are rests restful?

Not necessarily!

I mean the rests musicians talk about: those points in a piece where not only don’t you play anything, but you’re not meant to either.

Two orchestral trombonists talking on the radio some years ago put it well. Trombone players generally have a lot of rests in an orchestral piece. One said “If you’re sitting there counting 76 bars’ rest, it’s not very exciting”, to which the other responded “Actually it’s a lot more exciting if you don’t count them!”

Absolutely. What could be more exciting than having no idea where you are in the music, and frantically trying to find your place in time for your loud, prominent entry which might demolish the performance if you get it wrong?

If you’re not a musician, or if you’re some kind of musical genius, you might wonder what the problem is. Surely it’s just a matter of counting numbers, then when you get up to the appropriate one, you start playing?

In theory, yes. But in practice, there are a few pitfalls, and it pays to be aware of them. The ones here are, of course, the ones I’ve experienced; I’d be interested to hear of any others, and even more interested to hear of techniques people use to counter them.

Counting from the wrong place

The first risk happens right at the start of the rest. Sometimes the last bar before a number of bars’ rest contains just one note, which is on the first beat of the bar. This is then followed by, say, 16 bars’ rest. I find it very easy to accidentally count the nearly empty bar as the first of the rest bars, then risk playing a bar too early. It’s also easy to get confused part way through the rest as to whether I made that mistake or not, and be unsure whether I need to add an extra bar at the end.

Counting the wrong rest

This can happen surprisingly easily. Long rests are typically broken up into sections, for example 3+16+11+5 bars, corresponding to natural sections of the music. This is helpful for various reasons, but when you’ve been counting for a while it’s easy to forget whether you’re on, say, the 16-bar rest or the 11-bar rest. It also happens when there are two similar-length rests on different lines of music. If there are two 10-bar rests three lines apart and you look away from the music, then when you look back it’s quite easy to settle on the wrong one–and get a nasty surprise when you start playing again and the notes don’t fit.

Counting in the wrong time signature

Non-musicians might be surprised to hear that the number of beats indicated in the time signature of a piece (or section of a piece) doesn’t actually tell you how many the conductor will do to a bar, or how many you count to a bar. A time signature of 4/4 theoretically means there are four beats to a bar, each a crotchet (“quarter note”) long. In fact it can mean anything from one to eight beats per bar from the conductor, depending on how fast or slow the music is. “Is it in four or in two?” The answer should be clear from looking at the conductor, since different patterns of movements are used, but you know what conductors are like . . .

So it’s essential to know before you get to the rest, so you don’t find yourself counting half or double the correct number of bars. Or worse, having to do mental arithmetic at the same time as counting, when you realise part way through that you got it wrong. (That is in fact possible, but it is not stress-free.)

And there’s the situation, of course, where the time signature changes just as your rest starts, and you miss it. This is worst at the bottom of a page: once you’ve turned the page, you can’t even see that you missed the change.

So it’s not enough to know how many bars to count: you’ve got to know what sort of bars to count, too.

Forgetting to stop counting

This one happens in long rests which are divided up. You’ve got 7+16+18 bars’ rest, and you’re happily and automatically counting the bars. Then you realise that you’ve got up to 25, and none of the sections is that long. Oh dear. Do you subtract 16, or 23 (i.e. 7+16), or give up and keep counting all the way up to whatever the total is? And while you’re thinking about this, you’ve counted another couple of bars so the arithmetic’s different . . .

Losing the beat

Certain rests can be particularly stressful to count because the music that’s being played by other instruments is misleading to the ear. There are a couple of instances of this in the slow movement of Symphonie Fantastique, which I played in a few days ago. The oboe and cor anglais have long, lyrical solos and a duet. But their rhythm is displaced in a way that sounds as though the barlines can’t possibly be where they actually are. If you try to count the rest by listening, rather than by watching the conductor, you’ll be hopelessly wrong. Those two sections are mainly unaccompanied too, so there’s nothing else to listen to in order to keep your place. The only solution is to simply watch, count the conductor’s downbeats, and possibly even ignore the beautiful solo which you can hear: if it’s making you lose your place, then you need to shut it out.

During rehearsals, at least of the amateur orchestras which I know, a similar hazard occurs if the instruments still playing are hesitant or the ensemble starts to deteriorate. It can be quite terrifying counting a rest when you can hear several different versions of where the beats are . . .

Oh and let’s not forget foot-tapping. In my experience, someone in an orchestra who taps their foot “to keep time” invariably taps it out of time with the conductor. Probably because if they were watching the conductor they’d be in time already, and not need to tap their foot. When you’re counting a rest, a tapping foot is a rival beat and a dangerous distraction.

And as for people who count their rests out loud . . . ! The problem here is that often, not everyone’s rest starts in the same place, so they’re most likely counting different numbers from the ones you are. But that belongs to the next problem:

Losing count

Maybe losing count is the most obvious one, but I’ve left it until last.

If you’re a musician, how were you taught to count rests? How, for example, would you count six bars of four beats each?

Everyone I know counts like this:

ONE, 2, 3, 4, TWO, 2, 3, 4, THREE, 2, 3, 4, FOUR, 2, 3, 4, FIVE, 2, 3, 4, SIX, 2, 3, 4.

Or without the emphasis:

1 2 3 4 2 2 3 4 3 2 3 4 4 2 3 4 5 2 3 4 6 2 3 4.

See what you’re doing? You’re counting two sequences of numbers at once: the bars and the beats. And if you lose concentration and let your mind mechanically count numbers without adequate supervision, there’s a danger point at the beginning of bar 5, which I’ve highlighted: it’s easy to miscount

FOUR, 2, 3, 4, FIVE, 6, 7, 8, NINE, 2, 3, 4 . . .

Also, in a slow tempo, it’s possible to be distracted by the “2, 3, 4” within the bar from remembering which number bar you’ve reached.

So I’ve recently started experimenting with avoiding beat numbers altogether when counting rests, in the same sort of way we traditionally divide beats:

Two beats to a bar:


Three beats to a bar:

ONE & a TWO & a THREE & a FOUR & a

Four beats to a bar:

ONE … & a TWO … & a THREE … & a FOUR … & a

This means that instead of a seqence of numbers in my head like “1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3”, I have one like “1, 2, 3, 4”. I’m finding that this feels considerably more relaxed and is also much less error-prone. It feels like clearing a lot of confusing clutter out of the way. The beats of the bar are now a rhythm rather than a rival sequence of numbers.

The only problem is that I’ve still not quite decided how to count bars with six or more beats, especially slow ones. I’m still experimenting with that.

I also–hopefully reasonably discreetly–count the bars on my fingers, which acts as a useful check especially when counting a large number of long bars.


When you’re playing in a concert, I think you have to do everything you can which will make your life easier. Any little technique which will help should be used. My suggestions for less stressful rest-counting are:

  • When a rest is coming up, consciously focus on the bar before the rest, making sure that you don’t count it, and on counting “ONE” in the right place, so you both get it right and know that you got it right.
  • If you’ve got a long rest divided into sections, try to write something in the part to tell you what’s being played, so you have a way to check which rest you’re on if necessary.
  • If you’ve got two similar-looking long rests, then when you start counting, make a conscious mental note of which one you’re on, in case your eyes stray from it.
  • When a rest is coming up, remind yourself a few bars beforehand how many beats there are to a bar–even if you think it’s obvious.
  • While counting, don’t let it become so automatic that you forget how many bars to count! Keep the stopping point in mind.
  • If what you hear is confusing, don’t listen to it. Count the conductor’s downbeats.
  • Don’t tap your foot, or count out loud, if you want to keep your friends. If you do find yourself foot-tapping, stop immediately and watch the conductor instead.
  • Try to find the way of counting wihich involves least “mental clutter”, so you can simply count the bars.

2 responses to “And the rest is . . .

  1. Bonnie Brown

    I don’t know if I was supposed to laugh out loud at this post, but I did–several times–probably because I could totally relate to what you were saying! I sincerely liked your mental counting method as well. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this VERY enjoyable (and informative) post.

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