As a non-musician, you might be curious about why musicians say ‘1234’ before (or even during) a song. Whilst it’s something you will have almost-certainly become accustomed to through shows you’ve attended and recordings you’ve listened to, you might not know what (if any) real benefit it has.
So, why do musicians say 1234? This is what’s known as a ‘verbal count-in’ for a piece of music that has a 4/4 time signature. It’s most-commonly used to indicate the time signature and tempo of a song. However, it can also be used to indicate ‘feel’ and ensure everyone comes in at the same time.
Keep reading for a detailed account of each of the above benefits.
To Establish The Time Signature
The time signature indicates how a piece of music is to be counted. A ‘1234’ count-in is almost-always used for a song with a 4/4 time signature, meaning there are 4 beats to every measure. To better-understand how the 4/4 time signature works, here’s a great visual diagram provided by Sussex Guitar Lessons
As you can see from the above picture, the piece is divided up into groups of four beats. In order for a musician to play the piece effectively and stay in time, they’d have to subconsciously count each beat of each measure in their head.
Therefore, a ‘1234’ count-in lets musicians know that the piece they’re about to play is in 4/4 time. This is especially important if:
- The musicians have not prepared the piece beforehand.
- The musicians are taking part in an improvised jam session (i.e. not relying on any form of musical notation or other guidance).
- A musician has lost their place in the set list (for example, they might accidently skip a song and assume the next song is one that’s set in 3/4 time).
To Establish The Tempo
Tempo essentially refers to the speed of a song. If a song starts with a count-in, the musicians will generally adopt the pace of the count-in for the song itself. Therefore, the count-in ensures the musicians start the song at the correct tempo.
There are three primary tempo-related benefits that a verbal count-in provides:
It establishes the ‘live’ tempo
Many bands and artists will change up the tempo of a song in order to make it more convincing in a live setting. In order to prevent the musicians from mistakenly starting at the tempo of the recorded version, a verbal count-in will often be employed.
It limits the negative effects of nerves
When performing on-stage, musicians will often be dealing with significant nervousness. If the song starts with a single instrumental part, a count-in is not necessarily required. However, the musician who starts the song may be so nervous that they get the tempo badly wrong. Their nerves may cause them to start off at too-quick a pace out of anxiousness, or too-slow a pace due to being overly-cautious. Starting a song at the wrong tempo can be an absolute disaster, causing other musicians to make mistakes or come across as unconvincing.
In order to circumvent this, many bands will ask their most calm-and-collected member to perform a verbal count-in, which ensures each song is performed at the correct pace.
It allows the band to adapt to the needs of the singer
The human voice is an incredibly delicate and volatile instrument. It’s also what an audience will generally pay the most attention to. There are two primary reasons a band would have to adapt the tempo to the needs of their singer:
- Exhaustion or other performance difficulties: Over the course of a tour, a singer’s voice will generally wear out and become tired. Similarly, a singer’s voice may be badly affected by sickness or the climate. If the singer is experiencing performance difficulties, a slower tempo can often allow for a more convincing performance. Under these circumstances, it’s a good idea for the singer to perform a verbal count-in in order to set a pace they feel comfortable with.
- To take advantage of the singer’s unique traits: Each singer has a unique sense of diction and projection. The perfect tempo can really take advantage of a singer’s unique traits and lead to a strong vocal performance. As the vocals are what the audience will focus on the most, a singer may perform a verbal count-in at a pace where they feel they’ll be able to perform at their best.
To Establish The Feel
Feel refers to the attitude & presentation of a song. For example, a song might be described as gnarly or poignant. A verbal count-in allows a musician to use the tone of their voice to establish the song’s ‘feel’, encouraging the other musicians as well as the audience to adopt the intended frame of mind. Here are a couple of examples:
- For a fast, punk rock song: The musician may count-in with a sense of aggression.
- For an upbeat pop song: The musician may count-in with a jubilant and bubbly tone.
- For a sad, slow song: The musician may count-in with a sense of sorrow.
To Ensure Everyone Comes In At The Same Time
If a single musician starts off the song, a count-in is not necessarily required (as the other musicians will use the introductory part as a guide on when to come in). However, if a song starts with two or more musicians playing simultaneously, they’ll need a way of knowing exactly when to come in.
A verbal count-in serves as a great way of instructing the musicians when to come in. The ‘1234’ count-in essentially serves as a silent ‘pick-up’ measure, with the musicians coming in on beat 1 of the succeeding measure (i.e. the first measure of the song). This ensures everyone comes in at exactly the same time, allowing the song to start off without any timing issues.
To Instruct The Crowd
A verbal count-in can be hugely beneficial when it comes to audience participation. Audience participation may consist of:
- Raising hands
As established in the previous section, the ‘1234’ mantra can allow multiple people to perform an action at exactly the same time. If a band wants the entire crowd to perform a particular action at exactly the same time, a verbal count-in will usually be employed.
As we’ve established, verbal count-ins carry a range of benefits and serve as a fantastic guide for both a band and their audience. Due to this, you might find yourself thinking the following:
“How do musicians derive these benefits without saying 1234?!”
Well, there are several alternatives to the traditional ‘1234’ count-in:
- Alternative time signature count-in: If a song is in a different time signature, the appropriate number of beats will be employed (for example, a song in 3/4 will have a ‘123’ count-in).
- Hi-hat count-in: This is where the drummer taps each beat out on their hi-hat. It’s just as effective as a verbal count-in when it comes to time signature and tempo, but not as effective when it comes to feel and instructing the audience.
- Click track count-in: A click track (also known as a metronome) is a device that produces an audible ‘click’ sound at a pre-determined tempo. This is usually delivered via a musician’s in-ear monitors, meaning the audience doesn’t have to hear it. For a more-detailed account of how in-ear monitors work, check out this great product description. Click tracks usually carry on throughout the entirety of the song, allowing the band to remain strictly in time (which is especially important if the band uses pre-recorded backing tracks in their performance).