If I point to a flute and ask you what I’m pointing to, how many of you would tell me that it was a toot toot? Hopefully, no one would. Instead, you would tell me that I was pointing to a flute. We all understand that the instrument is called a flute, and that the sound it makes is toot toot. In fact, I think we would be hard pressed to think of anything that has a name that is the same as the sound it makes. Now, if you point to a quarter note on the board and ask your music class what you are pointing at, would they (correctly) say that you were pointing at a quarter note, or would they (incorrectly) say that you were pointing to a ta, or a du, or whatever syllable you taught them? The object you are pointing to has a name, and that name is quarter note. It has a sound, and that sound is the sound of the rhythm syllable. The name quarter note provides information about the sound, but it is not the sound itself. Knowing that a note is a quarter note tells us that when that note is sung, or played, or audiated, it will have a certain duration relative to a beat that has been established as a unit of measure. But what sound will last for that duration? It is the sound the performer gives to the note, which can be a rhythm syllable, or a tone played on an instrument, or the syllable of a word that is being sung.
Knowing that the note on the board is a quarter note tells us that the note will last for a given duration, but no one knows what that duration is until a tempo, and an ictus are set. Stating that a quarter note gets one beat tells us nothing concerning how long it will last because we don’t know the tempo, and we don’t know if the quarter note, eighth note or half note is going to be the ictus. It may very well turn out that an eighth note is the beat unit so that a quarter note gets two beats, or it may be that a half note is the beat unit so that a quarter note gets one half of a beat. Without knowing the tempo, we can’t know how long the quarter note will be.
Now, getting back to rhythm syllables, let’s not tell our students that this note is a ta or these notes are ti-ti. Instead, let’s tell them that this note is a quarter note and it sounds like this: ta, and that these notes are eighth notes, and they sound like this: ti-ti. The rhythm syllable gives a name to something that the student has already experienced and performed. The parallel here is to language acquisition. An child is laid down to sleep in a crib. The child sleeps there every day, long before he or she knows that the thing they are sleeping in is called a crib. They have used the crib before they have learned the name or spoken the name. After many hours of sleeping in the crib, the child learns from listening to parents speak the word “crib” in phrases like “time to nap in your crib.” After hearing the word “crib” spoken in the context of a sentence, the child eventually learns to associate the word “crib” to the thing he or she sleeps in, and eventually learns to speak the word, and recognize and use the association now made between the thing and its name.
In the same way, children hear music comprised of quarter notes and eighth notes for years before receiving any sort of formal musical training. After hearing chants, nursery rhymes, and simple songs sung by others, they become familiar with the rhythm patterns they hear within them, and then begin to imitate them in a sort of babble. Over time, this babbling becomes more precise, to the point where they can accurately repeat songs they have heard, and then learn that those patterns of note durations are made up of things called quarter notes and eighth notes, and that there are words they can use to sing and chant them that will help them remember the patterns and understand what they are perceiving and performing. Those words are rhythm syllables, and it is in this place in the learning sequence where rhythm syllables are properly introduced. It is of little or no value to teach children rhythm syllables before they can accurately audiate (Gordon) or know using their inner hearing (Kodaly) that for which rhythm syllables are being taught. The rhythm syllables must be associated with a sound with which the student is already familiar and has already heard, understood, and performed.
Consider how absurd it would be to teach children words without ever teaching them to what the word referred. Of what use is knowing the word “cat” if a child has never seen one and has no idea of a cat? We must view rhythm syllables like the word “cat.” Of what use is knowing ti-ti or du-de if a child doesn’t know what two eighth notes sound like? Those rhythm syllables are meaningless utterances unless the student can associate them with the sound of two eighth notes, which they can only do if it has already been taught to them before learning the syllables.
So first children must learn the sound. Through listening to music in their environment through early childhood and being taught rhythm patterns in formal training during the early school years, children become familiar with and able to accurately reproduce rhythm patterns. Next, children are given rhythm syllables with which to associate the various note durations they have been hearing and performing, and then finally, they are taught the kinds of notes they are dealing with, such as quarter notes, eighth notes, and so forth. Like note letter names on the pitch/tonal side, teaching note kinds is the last step in the rhythm teaching process. This is because they are not necessary for learning to audiate, sing accurately, or read music. They are necessary for learning, writing, and talking about music, and so should not be ignored; the teaching of them should only be delayed until the other steps in the process have been completed in the correct order.