The Way of Musical Beat Development

2011Symposium_1_2In music, awareness and sense of beat develops from a largely kinesthetic-motor response in the pre-kindergarten years, to a more internalized understanding with older children. Beat can be felt in any of a number of locations in the body, but it must be felt. Beat is not something that can be understood only from an intellectual perspective. Knowing about beat is not a substitute for knowing beat, or even knowing the beat. Gordon found that beat is felt in the body only when a shift of weight is involved. This disqualifies foot tapping as a way of knowing the beat, because no shift of weight occurs when a person is just tapping a foot. Foot tapping can be part of choreography through which beat is performed or expressed, but it must be known and felt elsewhere. Rocking motions are effective with young children for this reason; a shift of weight is felt with each rock. Other motions that are effective include swaying of the body, swaying of the arm, walking and stamping with alternating feet.

All of these motions should be done while music is being heard or performed, and the relationships between the movements and what is heard or performed must be learned. Rhythms can be equal to, elongations of, or divisions of the pulse being felt through movement. It is best to let elongations and divisions be learned by rote and occur naturally as children are moving to a steady pulse, instead of pointing out the relationship and trying to teach the music theory behind it. As children become accustomed to moving to a steady pulse while singing, chanting and listening, they will develop a sense of beat.

To begin to help children internalize musical beat, the motions can progress from largeDance-and-Movement muscle to smaller muscle. For example, initially children will rock, sway their arms and walk. Later, when they have become secure with musical beat understood through these motions, smaller muscle movements such as finger snapping with a gentle sway, shoulder tapping, head nodding or bouncing on the balls of the feet can be incorporated. These motions are more localized in the body. When the child has become accustomed to several of them, they should be encouraged to choose the one with which they can most easily feel the beet. People feel the beat best in different parts of their body, so giving this choice increases the effectiveness of using movement to develop beat. The more localized and the smaller the muscles involved, the more internalized the experiencing of beat will become. Most people will never loose the urge to move something when they listen to music, and just the presence of that urge is evidence that a sense of beat has been internalized.

With the exception of finger snapping, I have so far avoided movements that create sound, such as clapping and patsching. I have found that students who are unsure of the beat will try to copy what they hear other students doing. As a result, they are always a little after the beat, and will practice this inaccurate pulse keeping so that they become quite good at it, but they will not develop beat independence. For this reason, I prefer to delay using sound producing movements until all students are secure in their pulse keeping, at least for their current  level and repertoire. Once non-sound-producing motions are being used comfortably, the pulse can be securely performed aurally with little need for remediation or further training. This same principle holds for transferring body percussion, which is sound producing, to instrument playing. I keep students on body percussion as long as possible before giving them Orff instruments to play. I also like to have them sing the rhythm or solfege syllables of the music they will eventually be playing on instruments during this stage of instruction.  Doing so prepares them for success on the instruments much better, and allows them to enjoy playing accurately from the start.  Beat is foundational to all musics of the world. The importance of developing a complete understanding of it cannot be over stated.

There will not be a posting to this blog on Thursday, November 27 or Friday November 28. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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