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The phrase is from an animated tv series called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. You can see the full lyrics here: https://genius.com/Teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-turtles-theme-2003-lyrics

This is where it first appears:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Turtles, count it off!

One, Two, Three, Four!

Wikipedia says it's something related to music to establish the piece's initial tempo, time signature and style. But this doesn't appear to be related to music at all. Is it?

Perhaps it's just because the main characters are four? Or maybe because they follow four rules? The four rules from the lyrics

One! / Live by the code of the martial arts.

Two! / Never fight unless someone else starts.

Three! / Always stick together no matter what.

Four! / If all else fails then it's time to kick butt!

Dictionary.com had this entry:

Count off

Count aloud from one end of a line of persons to the other, each person counting in turn. For example, The soldiers counted off one by one. This usage and the practice it describes come from the military. But what is

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To count something off means to audibly mark a group of things with consecutive numbers.

In music, the leader counts off the beats of a measure before the music begins to signal the desired tempo to the musicians.

As a way for a group of people to count itself, the group 'counts off' one by one until the last person has counted off. The number that the last one recites is the number of people in the group.

In these lyrics the turtles count off in several ways. They count off the beats to start the first and third verses while they're counting themselves off one by one, and they count off the four rules they live by. Then they count off beats again during the conclusion. Because of the repetition, counting to four is a theme in the song - perhaps to emphasize the fact that they are four of them and they have four rules that they live by. The number four ties it all together simply and helps keep the audience of young children engaged.

One potentially confusing thing is when the turtles sing 'count it off', it's not clear what it is. What are they counting off? To me it seems that it's part of the whimsical nature of the song that we don't know exactly. Songs are poetry so they don't always exactly make literal sense like stories do. They count off beats of the song, they count the four of themselves off from one to four, they count off the four parts of their code of conduct. In this song 'it' is all of these things. In any case, it's obvious that the turtles know what to count without being told. They know something we don't know. This emphasizes the idea that they're a tight team, perfectly coordinated, with a plan for action.

The song can be heard on YouTube.com.

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  • Okay, but count what off? What does the it in count it off refer to? – user22360 Oct 11 '19 at 12:29
  • @user22360 Good question - I didn't even think about that part. I've updated my answer. Thank you. – dwilli Oct 12 '19 at 2:30
  • I accepted your answer. But you know, it's weird how stuff like songs and movies have so much details. In the video, when the turtles first count off, the count starts from Michelangelo (the youngest turtle with orange mask), but when they count off again, it starts from Leonardo (the oldest one with blue mask). Also, the YouTube link you provided leads to a part of an episode TMNT 1987. This is the song link from Genius: youtube.com/watch?v=dRnRUtMHGow – user22360 Oct 12 '19 at 20:55
  • Thanks again. I fixed the link. Yeah, it's a very creative sequence when you start looking at it closely. – dwilli Oct 13 '19 at 3:16
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"Count it off" here is a filler line in the song. It is an imperative statement - perhaps to their fellow Turtles, perhaps to the audience -, but it refers to the fact that the Turtles are about to "count it off" by saying, "One, Two, Three, Four" to start the song. Not exactly an industry standard in music (generally, "count (someone) in" is more commonly heard among real musicians), but it's clear that the Turtles are alluding to starting the song by counting to four.

As in real music, the counting is done to establish a consistent tempo for the song to follow. That means communicating how fast or slow the song is going to be performed.

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  • But what about verse two? They also said "count it off". [Verse Two] Turtles, count it off! 1, Live by the code of the martial arts 2, Never fight unless someone else starts 3, Always stick together no matter what 4, If all else fails, then it's time to kick butt! It doesn't seem that it's just about starting the song. – user22360 Oct 9 '19 at 19:24

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