For some, finding the beat can be as easy as hearing your heartbeat or breathing, but not everyone picks up on the pulse so easily. Maybe you’re that guy who can’t hear the rhythm and has two left feet, or the girl who always finds herself clapping on beats 1 and 3-ish when everyone else is jamming out on 2 and 4. Maybe you are a singer who has perfect pitch but can’t find beat 1.

If that’s you, don’t worry! While it may seem like clapping in time is something you “should” already know how to do, with some ear training skills and a little bit of practice it is a quite learnable – and valuable – skill.

Why learn to clap in time?

What if I just want to play my instrument? What’s the big deal about clapping in time anyway?

Well, it turns out that clapping in time is a foundational skill of musicality, and will enhance your performance and enjoyment in every aspect of your musical experience.

So today you will learn the basics of clapping in time step-by-step:

  • Learn how to truly hear what is around you
  • Learn how to sense rhythms in your environment
  • Clap basic rhythms
  • Learn about clapping on “2 and 4”, and “1 and 3”
  • Learn how to clap to a song

Once you have learned how to truly pick out the pulse from a musical example, it only takes a little bit of practice to truly master clapping in time.

How to Listen

The first step to clapping in time is learning how to listen, really listen. The legendary composer Pauline Oliveros described this type of listening as “deep listening” or “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”

What this means, is that in your everyday life, you take the time to listen and use your ears to extract sounds, specific sounds.

Exercise 1. Quiet

The composer John Cage was best known for his experimental music and philosophy on sound. One of his best-known works is titled “4’33” in which the performer sits quietly for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. During this time, the ambience of the room like people shuffling their feet, birds outside, or even people coughing, became the composition.

There is rhythm all around you. This can be anything from the sounds of traffic and the city to the quiet of the woods to the rushing and cyclical pounding of ocean waves on the shore. Birds, insects, weather… all have rhythm. Learning how to discern different pulses within a greater soundscape will help you learn how to properly clap in time and find the beat.

For this first exercise, you will take ten minutes to simply sit still and listen. As you sit:

  1. Listen for sounds around you
  2. Try to pull out specific rhythms or melodies you might hear in your environment
  3. See if there is a steady beat, like a backing truck or the chirping of a grasshopper, that you can lightly tap your hand to in time

Exercise 2. Heartbeat

To date, nearly every civilization and society have developed some sort of percussive rhythm in their music, even if they have been isolated from modern society for all time. Part of this is that we have an intrinsic rhythm in our bodies through our heartbeat, even our breathing.

For this exercise:

  1. Find your pulse on your wrist
  2. Start counting with your heartbeat 1-2-3-4
  3. Tap your foot to your heartbeat
  4. For a variation, stand up and jog, doing a few jumping jacks, or walk briskly and repeat the exercise
  5. How has your heartbeat changed?

Breaking Down the Beat

Why is it important to clap in time, to find the pulse of a piece of music?

The underlying layers of rhythmic sound are what drive the music. Yes, the melody sticks in our heads and the harmony tugs our emotions. But without the steady beat, we wouldn’t be tapping our feet and feeling the groove. This steady pulse is the rock on which rhythm is built, and the measure of music’s movement forward.

Exercise 3: Clapping in 4/4 time

In 4/4 time there are four beats per measure. The pulse follows a simple 1-2-3-4 quarter note pattern

  1. Listen to the Four Beat example below
  2. Close your eyes and internalize the pulse
  3. Tap your foot to the rhythm
  4. Clap to the rhythm

Most of the music you hear on the radio has a basic 4/4 time signature like the example above. What this means is that you can take a song in 4/4 and isolate the simple four beat pattern by counting 1-2-3-4 along with the song.

Exercise 4: Clapping with “Eye of the Tiger”

If you listen to “Eye of the Tiger” below, starting at [0:26], you can hear a very basic quarter note rhythm in the drums that continues throughout the entire song.

The drum part is very basic. You can hear the bass drum and snare drum rhythm (from about [0:30] on) isolated here:

  1. Listen to “Eye of the Tiger”
  2. Starting at 0:26, listen specifically to the drum set part
  3. If you can, tap your foot to the basic 4/4 rhythm
  4. Count 1-2-3-4 with the drum part
  5. Clap as you count

Exercise 5: Clapping on beats 2 and 4

While you are listening, you may have noticed that the snare drum part falls on beats 2 and 4.

In fact, most of the time, when you clap along with a popular tune on the radio, you will want to clap on beats 2 and 4, not on beats 1 and 3 (don’t be that guy!):

In many pop, rock, hip hop, and even jazz tunes, the snare drum or tambourine falls on beats 2 and 4.

  1. Listen to the Example below
  2. Count out loud
  3. Practice clapping on beats 2 and 4
  4. After you have done this, go back to “Eye of the Tiger” and try clapping on beats 2 and 4 along with the snare drum

More Practice:

You can practice clapping on beats 2 and 4 every time you turn on the radio. There are many examples of pop and rock songs, especially, that have a clear drum part that will help you find the pulse and clap on beats 2 and 4.

Clap it Off

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is another great example of clapping on beats 2 and 4. Check it out:

Now, not all genres have the audience clapping on beats 2 and 4. There are many popular folk genres where beats 1 and 3 are emphasized or even every beat, but in most popular music cases, you will want to clap on beats 2 and 4.

For example, in the Americana Bluegrass video before, you would clap on every beat, not just two and four.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Clapping

There are some genres like pop and rock that have many simple straightforward beats. Below are musical examples that are driven by a simple pulse. Using what you have learned in this article:

  1. Listen for the drum part – the snare, in this case, rings like gunshots on 2 and 4.
  2. Clap along with the snare on beats 2 and 4
  3. Listen for other rhythm section instruments like the keys, bass, or guitar
  4. See if you can clap on 1-2-3-4

We Will, We Will Clap You

In case you’re still having a rough time with clapping on 2 and 4, clap right along with the guys from Queen:

Did you think you were clapping on 3? If you count a fast “4”, it seems like this: “1-2-3 rest, 1-2-3 rest”. However, once the song is underway, that’s going to feel too fast (this phenomenon is called “double-time”). Here’s a better way to think of it: “1 & 2 , 3 & 4” (so the rests is really the “&” of 2 and 4).

All About That Clapping on 2 and 4

Here’s another online clapping tutorial disguised as a hit song:

In the intro clap along on 2 and 4 with the dancers. Wait, what was that double clap thing? You heard right! Here’s the pattern: “1 2 3 4, 1 2& 3 4”. Don’t worry if you can’t catch the double clap – learning to clap on 2 and 4 is quite enough for now.

Once you can clap along with the intro, work on keeping the same pattern going through the verse. When the clapping returns in the chorus, you’ll see if you were able to keep it up.

Still Struggling? Call a Friend!

So far you have practiced listening to rhythm and beats in your environment, picking out simple drum parts in tunes, and clapping along with a drum set. If you find that you have been struggling with the exercises up to this point, take some time to practice these exercises with a friend.

Sometimes practicing with someone else will help you develop your own skills.

And don’t worry if they struggle as much as you do or if they are a clapping-in-time superstar. Either way, working together will help your musical skills!

I hope that you enjoyed this fun article on clapping in time. Now you have the basics that you need to clap in time. As you become more comfortable with easier pop and rock songs, move on to other genres like jazz or hip hop. With some practice, you will soon be a clapping champion!