Today I asked a class of 7th graders to explain how, when they move to a current pop song I played in class, notes on beats feel different from notes between beats. If I were to have taught them the answer, I would have told them that the notes on the beat feel stronger. I would have told them that notes between beats sometimes make syncopation, giving the music motion that lifts and points toward the next beat. I might have told them that the notes in between beats pull me toward the next beat or finish a rhythm started on the previous beat. What my students wrote for their answers was interestingly different from what I would have told them.
My students found that the notes on the beat are slower than the notes in between beats. Some wrote that the beat repeats over and over and the notes in between beats make different rhythms. One student wrote “there are switching places in between the beats.” A couple of students answered with descriptions of instruments that played on each of the four beats of a measure. They apparently were tuned into the pitch and timbre rather than the rhythmic feel. Overall, references to faster or slower rhythms were prevalent in their answers, and many responses evidenced thoughtful if unexpected answers. References to accent, weight, or metrical structure were noticeably missing.
After looking at the students’ responses, it was evident that more teaching on meter was necessary. To be honest, I have not used enough movement in teaching these students meter in previous years. Just as being able to give letter names to pitches doesn’t mean a person can read music, reciting the meaning of the time signature and drawing measure lines in music that has none does not mean a person understands meter, which is patterns of strong and weak beats. Strong beats can be heard to a certain extent, but they are much more meaningful and clear when they are put in the body with movement.
One Dalcroze activity I like to use for this is bouncing, catching and tossing a ball. For common time, students walk to the beat while, on successive beats, bouncing, catching, tossing, and catching the ball. The bounce on beat one feels stronger than the toss on beat three, and the catches on beats two and four feel like preparations for beats three and one. Earlier this week, with a different class than the one I mentioned above, I asked them which of the four beats in each measure felt the strongest. We first discovered the strength of bouncing the ball, and then tried bouncing on each beat, a different beat each time through the song, that was offered by students as the one they thought was the strongest. First we tried making beat four the strong beat, and then we tried making beat one the strong beat. They all agreed one felt more natural as the strong beat. Having bounced the ball and felt the strength of the bounce match with the strength of the first beat, they now had an understanding of meter they would never have acquired by simply listening for a strong beat at the start of each measure.
The big point here is that music simply cannot be experienced fully apart from dance or movement. Music is movement—the movement of pitches and durations across time. As it is with anything that moves, music has speed (tempo), signposts (accents), and distance or length (time-span). To try to understand music by sitting still may be good etiquette in a symphonic concert hall, but it is an ineffective and confounding way to learn music. Meter seems to be an aspect of music that many unguided and inexperienced listeners overlook. Leading the way for students to discover and enjoy meter, which is integral to rhythm in general is an important job for music educators.