"Pick Up Notes" and Counting In Songs

Jun 05, 2021

Can you get the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land" into your head for a minute? The first lyric is “This land is YOUR land.” 

I’ve used bold and italics to indicate that the song’s first down beat is on the word “your.” So where do we put the first three syllables, “this land is?”

“Pick up notes” are what we call any syllable(s) of a lyric that you sing before the first beat of the song. And they appear on the chart in the often truncated first measure before the double bar:

In the case of This Land is Your Land, we have three quarter notes (“this,” “land” and “is”) before the song even starts! 

These three quarter notes are called the “pick up notes” or, simply, “the pickup” of the song.

In the Brazilian song “Tico Tico na Fuba,” which you can hear me play at the start of the video, we also have a 3-note pick up, but this time with 16th notes:

Here's how you can count them (I'm using American 4/4 time eighth-note language to make this easier):

Learning to count in and play a pick up to a song is a fundamental musical skill. And one that will benefit you throughout the song, not just for the kick-off.

To prove this point, here's the first four lines of Tico Tico. Take a close look at the last measure of each line, particularly the last three notes:

Do the last three notes of each line look familiar? Not the pitches, but the rhythm. It is the exact same "pick up notes" or "pick up" we saw at the top of the tune.

This is no accident - great melodies follow predictable patterns. Think of your favorite mandolin pieces, especially the ones with pick up notes. They almost always recur throughout the piece.

It follows that a failure to learn how to count in a song and perform the pickup notes confidently will cause you problems throughout the entire song - nearly every measure in the case of Tico Tico.

After the performance of Tico Tico, we'll practice the pick up with a simple looping exercise. This exercise works for every song with a pick up, so once you learn it here, you can use it to tackle the pick up notes in all of your songs.

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