It seems there can never be too many methods for teaching music rhythm, especially where reading music is concerned. It is interesting that music notation can be at once both so logical and so confusing. Researchers have taught us that music reading is learned similarly to language reading; first we learn a vocabulary of patterns, then we learn what they look like written down. Once the sound we learn first is matched with the notes we see, music reading takes place. While there is no question that this is sound theory and leads to sound teaching, there are nevertheless times when students don’t make the necessary matches and connections. At these times, we need other strategies to help them see the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Today, I will describe one such strategy.
Music rhythm can be approached as a series of sounds and silences. Notes are sounds, rests are silences. Each serves as a kind of on switch and off switch for sound along a continuous span of time. This time is measured at first as all eighth rests drawn above a blank staff on my white board. Each rest represents one beat of silence. Each beat can be “turned on” by placing a note on the staff under one of the eighth rests written above the staff. Each beat can remain turned off by carrying an eighth rest from above down into the staff. Once some beats are turned on with eighth notes or kept turned off with an eighth rest, students can begin reading and drumming or clapping the rhythm by following half-beat pulses and making a sound on notes and keeping silent on the rests written in the staff.
Once they get the hang of this, I then add in quarter notes and quarter rests. These each equal two eighth note rests, so after playing a quarter note, the switch stays on for one more beat before going off again. If there is a quarter rest, the switch stays off for one more beat before going on again. At this stage, I do not use two or more rests consecutively. I assist the students’ reading by pointing to each eighth-note beat with a pointer on the notation on the board as they read and play the rhythm, or have a student point while the others play. With ten to fifteen minutes of practice, even the student who is initially most confused about how to read rhythms is demonstrating some fluency at performing rhythms from notation.
Aside from how well this method works, there is another advantage it offers. Whereas research based methods precede reading a rhythm with hearing and performing it, such a method does not provide a strategy for reading an unfamiliar rhythm. In other words, if there is notated a rhythm pattern that is not in the student’s rhythm vocabulary, how does he or she figure out the rhythm from the notation? In teaching language, students can sound out words and string together vowel and consonant sounds to speak an unfamiliar word. They then learn the definition, perhaps from a dictionary or teacher. In music, there are no definitions of patterns; a patterns meaning is what it sounds like in the context of beat, meter, and tonality. The method I have advanced here can be used to figure out unfamiliar rhythms, and will be unnecessary for patterns that the student recognizes and can sing at sight. Remember, this method is designed as an intervention for students who, in spite of research-based instruction, still are unable to perform rhythms from standard music notation. Once an unfamiliar pattern is learned with this method, the durations involved should be collected into a group and learned as a pattern so that it will be remembered the next time it is encountered. This method is also similar in conception to piano roll notation used in music sequencing software, and may be of use in teaching conventional notation from piano roll notation by having students convert from one to the other.