Yesterday, I wrote about using fixed do solfege to teach music reading (Another Try at Fixed Do). Fixed do solfege is an effective way of helping students remember pitches aurally and visually. Solfege syllables do not aid in learning rhythms. For this, rhythm syllables or counting systems are used. Many systems of rhythms syllables have been developed, and each offers both advantages and disadvantages. In this post, I have not considered counting systems, but instead have reviewed the most often used syllable systems. I will take up counting systems in another post.
Each of the major music education methods has associated with it an approach to teaching rhythm. Kodaly teachers use a system whereby the tactus is given the syllable ta, and the division of the tactus into two is called ti-ti, and into four teri-teri. When the tactus is divided into three, it is called tri-o-la, and the pattern of ti-ta-ti is commonly called syn-co-pa. With this system, each note value is given a distinct name. No internal consistency is used. For example, the tactus for a quarter note is ta but a tactus for the first of two eighth notes is ti, and the tactus for the first of four sixteenth notes is te. The distinct names for note values make durations easily recognizable, but the lack of internal consistency makes it difficult to relate durations to the tactus pulse. Also, there is no provision for six sixteenth notes in compound meter. Interestingly, the french system from which the Kodaly syllables were drawn retain the advantage of distinct names for note values that make up one beat, and also have the advantage of internal consistency.
In the French system, quarter notes are ta, two eighth notes are ta-te, and four sixteenth notes are tafa-tefe.
Notice that in each case, the tactus is always ta, and the half-beat is always te, regardless of how the rest of the measure is filled out. Systems for which this is true are called beat function systems. Three eighth notes in compound time are ta-te-ti, which also can be used for triplets, and six sixteenth notes in compound meter are tafa-tefe-tifi. In the latter, notice that ta, te, and ti are preserved, and the sixteenths in between are fa, fe, and fi, respectively. The French system is more difficult to remember, which probably explains why Kodaly teachers teaching young children prefer the Kodaly version. Even so, my experience with young children is that they are capable of using the French system (or others that are similar) and in fact enjoy the challenge and at times tongue-twisting fun of the sixteenth note syllables. The Kodaly system handles dotted quarter and eighth combinations better with taam-ti compared to taw ate, because the former does not dedicate a syllable to the dot, which of course is not supposed to be separated from the quarter note in performance.
Another popular beat function system is the one used by Edwin Gordon. In his system, quarter notes are du, two eighth notes are du-de, and four sixteenth notes are duta-deta. Triplets and three eighth notes in compound meter are du-da-di, and six sixteenth notes in compound meter is duta-data-dita.
All of the characteristics of the French system noted above apply to the Gordon system also. A very similar system is the Takadimi system, where the syllables are ta, tadi, takadimi, ta-ki-da, and ta-va-ki-di-da-ma. The Gordon system is easier to pronounce, and is well suited for instrumental music instruction, because it uses consonants more closely imitating the articulation movements of the tongue for playing wind instruments.
Orff teachers take a quite different approach to rhythm. Here, rhythm is connected to speech patterns, meter, and body movement. Where as a Kodaly teacher would teach the pattern two eighth notes and a quarter note as ti-ti ta, the Orff teacher would teach the same rhythm with a phrase that contained that rhythm, such as “what a shame.”
The child would move either to the steady beat, or use body percussion to play the rhythm as the phrase is spoken. When these movements are in the arms, they can then be transferred to barred instruments. The advantage of the Orff approach is that rhythm and movement are inseparable. Rhythm is best understood as motion because it is the element that gives music motion through time and because rhythm is perceived as movement in the brain, activating the same brain locations as if the child was actually moving. The disadvantage of the Orff approach is similar to that of the Kodaly method; the tactus and divisions of the tactus can be any number of syllables. With the Orff approach, this disadvantage is stronger, but a great variety of phrases may be assigned to a rhythm. At its best, one word or phrase is consistently used with the same rhythm pattern.
In my own teaching, I prefer the Gordon system for its internal consistency, and the Orff approach for its emphasis on movement and efficiency with which students are prepared to play barred instruments; however, when using the Orff approach, I am likely to use a beat function system in place of speech patterns made of words.
Many times, music teachers will continue to use the rhythm syllable system they learned in college, or that they are most used to. “Because I’ve always done it that way” is frequently a poor reason for continuing. It is a good idea to critically evaluate the rhythm syllable system you use, and decide to continue or change based on what is most successful, reliable, and transferable.
Students will gain high proficiency with a successful system, will be able to use the same system throughout the various stages of their development and maturing with a reliable system, and will be able to use the same system for all musical activities including singing, playing instruments, and responding to music to which they listen. These are the bases upon which a music teacher can confidently select a rhythm syllable system.