Switching from One Rhythm Syllable System to Another: Helping Students Work Through The Transition

2011Symposium_1_2One of the challenges some music teachers face is sharing students with other music teachers. While it is great that a child might be in band, chorus, and or general music or other music offerings, if a child learns the same concept two or even three different ways, confusion can result. A music teacher must be aware of how his or her colleagues are teaching a concept, and either agree to teach using the same method, or reconcile the two or three methods so they become reinforcing and complementary instead of competing.

A case in point is how rhythm is taught. Throughout my career, I have noticed that the band teacher doesn’t always use the same rhythm syllables that I do. Many instrumental teachers use a system of counting the beat number followed by “and” for eighth notes and “e and a” for sixteenth notes. As a general music teacher, I used Kodaly syllables, where quarter notes were “ta,” eighth notes were “ti-ti” and sixteenth notes were “ter-ri ter-ri.” Later, I switched to using Gordon syllables. In either case, I found that students were not able to make the connection on their own between the band teacher’s number system, and either Kodaly or Gordon syllables. In the process of showing them how the rhythm syllables were a different way of learning the same thing, I realized that the three rhythm systems are very different. Possessing an understanding of these differences is important for music teachers because it impacts both bridging different systems for students, and switching from one system to the other. For example, in order to successfully switch from using Kodaly rhythm syllables to Gordon rhythm syllables, one must understand the functional differences between them. Today, I will walk us through how to successfully make the switch from Kodaly to Gordon. Keep in mind that while I prefer the Gordon approach, many outstanding music teachers employ Kodaly syllables with excellent results. My intent is not to argue in favor of one or the other, but only to demonstrate how to make the switch.


Zoltan Kodaly

The first difference is that Kodaly rhythm syllables are based on note values, and the relative lengths of notes. When the note value is equal to one beat, “ta” is used, and when there are two notes each equal to one half beat, ti-ti is used. In one case the sound that occurs on the beat is called “ta” and in the other case the sound that occurs on the beat is called “ti.” This difference is due to the fact that although both sounds occur on the beat, the duration of the sounds are different, and are therefore called by different names. As you might expect, this system works well for teaching note values, but allows students to overlook the placement of each beat as their attention is on the relative note values. Because of this, students switching form Kodaly syllables to Gordon syllables often will be unsure of the beat, or how rhythms relate to a beat. For this reason it is imperative that students always patsch or tap with the heels of their feet the pulse while they are chanting rhythms. Through the use of patsch and/or tapping heels, students can be taught that all Kodaly syllables that are chanted on a beat can be collected into a group of syllables. This group can be called the “du” group. Begin calling a ta, or ter a du, and you have begun the transition. For example, “ti-ti” becomes “du-ti,” “ta” becomes “du, ” and “ter-ri ter-ri” becomes “du-ri du-ri.” Make this shift aurally first, having students repeat patterns you chant for them, and without using music notation. Then, have them chant a notated rhythm the old way, and then the new way, eventually replacing the new with the old, until they have made the transition. Now, everytime a note occurs on the beat, it will always be called “du” no matter what the duration of that note is. Next, replace the second “ti” in a pair with “de” so that du-ti becomes du-de and du-ri ter-ri becomes du-ri de-ri. Use the same procedure of starting aurally and then connecting with notation. The final transition is the easiest, changing “ri” to “ta.” Triple meter patterns must be addressed also. The transition to “du” is exactly the same. The other Gordon syllables are slightly different. Du da di are three eighth notes, and du-ta-de-ta-di-ta are six sixteenth notes. Again, though, the transition method is the same, changing one sound at a time and changing first aurally and then rotationally. Do not rush into notation. Give the students all the time they need to make the switch aurally first.

Naturally, it is better to start children on one system and consistently use that system throughout their music education. There is no need to create the confusion that starting on one system and then switching over to another can create; however, if switching is necessary because separate music teachers some children have prefer different systems, teaching them how both systems work can be like learning a second language. Once fluency is achieved, they are able to understand both systems better, and can benefit from the strengths of each.


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