Rhythmic Structure of Music: It’s More Than Syllable and Counting Systems

2011Symposium_1_2I have observed among students and colleagues alike that there is a good deal of confusion when it comes to rhythm in music. Students are frequently confused about what rhythm is, and teachers are often confused about how to teach it. From the teacher’s point of view, much of the confusion seems to come from how we were taught rhythm. As a child, I was taught to count and tap my foot. As an undergraduate, I still counted and tapped my foot in ensembles and applied music lessons, but Kodaly specialists taught me to use rhythm syllables, and Dr. Gordon taught me to use his rhythm syllables. I have discussed the difference between these systems in a separate post. While it is no doubt important for music teachers to be trained in all of these systems, they all tend to impart an incomplete sense of what rhythm really is, especially if they are not implemented with skill. Today I will discuss what rhythm is and what aspects of rhythm the counting and syllables systems overlook.


There are essentially two components to rhythmic structure in music. One is grouping, and the other is meter. When a person perceives a sequence of sounds as a motive, theme, phrase, theme-group or section, that person is grouping those sounds together, sensing them as a single unit. Rhythmic factors determine which notes belong together and which ones don’t. A relatively long note among shorter ones tells a person that the end of a group has arrived, and a new one is about to begin. Changes in articulation, or recurring patterns can also demarcate groups. While pitch factors may also influence how sequences of sounds are grouped, grouping is understood as a function of time, and is therefore part of rhythmic structure, that is, the part of music that is perceived over time. Groups occupy a given time-span, such as a measure, two measures, four measures, and so forth, and are heard hierarchically; that is, two one measure groups are nested into one two measure group, and two two measure groups are nested into one four measure phrase. It is from sensing these hierarchical time units that a person perceives symmetry, and antecedent and consequent phrases; and when the symmetry is disrupted by an elision, without the listener having been “counting beats,” he or she intuitively knows that the established length of groups music and the brainhas been shortened, and excitement builds in the music as a result.


The other component to rhythmic structure in music is meter. Meter is the means by which a person marks off music into equal time-spans. Beats that are equidistant from one another are the units of measurement, and are combined into recurring patterns characterized by a relatively strong beat followed by some number of weaker beats before the next strong beat occurs. The strong beats recur at regular time intervals, and by this recurrence the meter is established. For example, a minuet or scherzo is in triple meter, because there are recurring patterns of one strong beat followed by two weaker beats, making three beats in all. Meter and grouping interact in the sense that at certain critical points in the music, both the group and the metrical unit begin or end at the same time, as at the beginning or ending of a theme or section.


Within both groups and meters there are any number of notes, each of which has a specific duration. These durations are what are most commonly thought of as rhythm, though in fact as we have seen they are actually contributors to grouping and meter. Durations help define groups and can also define strong beats, and so are obviously critical to both grouping and meter; however, if only durations are considered apart from grouping and metrical contexts, most of the significance of the durations to the music goes unnoticed. It is even possible to recite rhythm syllables outside the context of beat, and find oneself even further removed from the musicality of the rhythms being chanted. Try this experiment. Chant out loud ti ti ti tow. What meter does this rhythm indicate to you? Did the rhythm start on the beat or on the half-beat? Did it start at the beginning of a metrical unit or after a rest? If it started after a rest, what was the duration of the rest? We can begin to see from these questions that rhythm syllables alone can be as misleading as they are helpful. A beat and meter must be established so that musical context can be understood. When students are taught durations only, without meter or grouping, they cannot possibly make anything musical out of what they are learning. What’s more, retaining what they are chanting becomes difficult because the brain has not been given anything to attach it to; it is like learning a new word without ever learning what the word means. Try memorizing a few words in a language you don’t understand. It’s next to impossible. So when you teach rhythm, teach the whole structure–yes, durations, but also the meter and durations made from those durations.


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