Upon hearing someone shout “one, two, three, four!” the next thing you’ll probably hear is the guitarist, vocalist, bassist, and drummer immediately jumping in at the next beat with their own lyrics, rhythm, and melody.
On the other hand, when you hear someone shout “five, six, seven, eight!” the next thing you’ll see is a group of people kicking their feet and swinging their arms to the beat of the music. That’s kind of like the law of nature.
So, why is it that musicians use 1234 and dancers use 5678? What difference does it make? Are these count-offs interchangeable? Apparently, there’s quite a simple explanation for this. We’ll show you.
Why do musicians use 1234 and dancers 5678? The Answer
For us to understand the differences between these two count-offs, we have to understand something called a “bar.” In a music sheet, one line, otherwise known as a phrase, is divided every four beats, called a bar. This means that when musicians count from one to four, they’re counting one complete bar.
Traditional songs usually use repetitive chord progressions and rhythm, so musicians often have to play four notes or beats repetitively in different bars. This lessens the need to count from one to eight since the notes and beats on 5678 would most probably be the same as the ones played in 1234.
On the other hand, dancers need to memorize their steps to be in sync with the other dancers. Dancing is quite diverse, and dancers often have different steps for every beat and every bar. Ergo, the reason why they count from one to eight is to have a wider and longer zone of allocating their diverse steps.
For instance, if a dancer counts from one to four just like musicians do, it would be harder to execute their steps since one bar is too short for their movements. However, counting from one to twelve or one to sixteen is just way too long, making it harder to memorize their steps.
One to eight is the Goldilocks zone for dancers, as two bars is just enough to execute their movements, and it’s much easier to connect one progression of their steps to the next.
So, why would a musician start his/her song with 1234 and a dancer begin his/her dance with 5678? Well, both of them would have to start their performance at beat one. However, musicians count in one bar, while dancers count in two bars.
So, for a band to coordinate their melodies, they’d have to count 1, 2, 3, 4, and then all of them would start playing at the next “one” on the next bar.
On the other hand, a group of dancers also need to be synchronized. If they counted in 1234, that would just be the first bar, which means the next count would be “five” instead of “one.” So, for all of them to land the same steps at “one,” they have to end the countdown at “eight” instead of “four.” Ergo, 5678 is used by dancers instead of 1234.
To make it simpler, musicians count a bar with four beats while dancers count in two bars with eight beats. This means that a phrase for a musician would be 16 beats, while a phrase for a dancer is 32 beats.
Why Dancers Count in Eights
Aside from easy memorization, there’s another reason why dancers count in eights. Dancers have two feet and two hands, so they’d have to count in eights. That’s not to say that musicians are some sort of mutants with one foot and arm.
However, dancers often execute one movement on one side of their bodies in four counts. What that means is that counting 1, 2, 3, and 4 often only accommodates steps with their left foot and left arm.
They would then have to repeat the same movements with their right foot and right arm, but since it’s the same steps, it would be confusing to count 1, 2, 3, and 4 again. So, dancers continue the count with 5, 6, 7, and 8.
Ergo, counting from one to eight completes one movement, with each half of the count being performed by the two halves of the body subsequently.
Why Musicians Count in Fours
It’s rather difficult to determine why musicians count in fours. Perhaps it’s just what we’ve been practicing since the beginning, and that’s what we’ve gotten used to. However, there seems to be an effect to practice and memorization when musicians count in 4/4 timing.
Instead of steps that are easier to remember in eight counts, the notes in a music sheet seem to be easier to remember in four counts. That’s probably because a musician needs to READ a music sheet instead of simply memorizing the steps with his/her hands and feet as dancers do.
Ergo, a music sheet would be harder to memorize in eights compared to fours. This is kind of like when we try to remember a cellphone number. It’s particularly easier to remember two four-digit numbers instead of remembering one eight-digit number.
So, before a musician is able to engrave the music sheet into his/her muscle memory, he/she first needs to interpret and continuously practice what’s in the music sheet. This becomes a little easier when the phrase is broken down into bars with four counts each.
For instance, if a musician is having trouble playing it, he/she can simply return to the specific bar where the difficult note is located instead of going back two bars behind (since this is how dancers count) or going back to the beginning of the sheet or phrase altogether.
What this means is that, since musicians have to read the music sheet, dividing it into chunks of four would make it easier to memorize and translate into muscle memory.
When Do Musicians and Dancers Stop Counting in 1234 and 5678?
There are cases, however, where musicians and dancers don’t count in 1234 and 5678. That’s because there are certain songs and dances that don’t use the traditional four beats per bar. For instance, waltz only uses three beats in every bar.
Nonetheless, musicians and dancers tend to count this differently as well. For musicians, a waltz beat would be 1, 2, 3, and 1, 2, 3, counting each beat in every bar. On the other hand, dancers still use the same mechanics of memorization and left-and-right coordination. This means they often count waltz in 1, 2, 3, and continue to 4, 5, 6, counting all the beats every two bars.
There is one dance where musicians and dancers seem to use the same countdown, and it’s cha-cha. When a musician plays cha-cha music, and when dancers dance cha-cha steps, they both count 1-2-3-chacha.
Since the dawn of time, musicians and dancers seem to have taken their pick on whether to count in fours or in eights.
There are multiple reasons for this but don’t worry; there’s not a rule set in stone that you should count in fours if you’re a musician or in eights if you’re a dancer.
However, don’t blame us if your bandmates suddenly start dancing their minds off after you count them off with 5678. Maybe some things are better left the way they currently are, eh?
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.