The Difference Between Rhythm and Beat

2011 Symposium2

The term “beat” is arguably the most misunderstood in music. This is evident from the disparate ways the word is used, even among music educators and professional musicians. For example, is a beat something musicians see, hear, or audiate? Directors often tell students in their ensemble to “follow the beat,” intending that the musicians see the beat being conducted and conform their playing to that beat. Those same directors may then send their students home and instruct them to practice with a metronome so that they can hear the beat while they play. At still other times, a class of students may be asked to move to the beat of a classical music selection being played, in which there are rhythms but none exactly the same as the beat, so that the child must audiate the beat and then move to the beat that is being audiated. When we stop to think about it, we can reasonably conclude that very few musicians, let alone music students, can properly define beat. This confusion comes primarily from getting things out of order.

To students for whom popular music is the only genre they encounter, a beat that is notPicture1 heard does not exist. I have heard students say many times that they do not like listening to classical music because it doesn’t have a beat. They will explain that a rap or rock song has a beat, and they will be happy to point out the drum part to prove their point. Then, they will point out that the bit of Mozart or Beethoven I just played for them has no such thing. There aren’t even any drums at all! Within the context of their definition of beat, a steady pulse that can explicitly heard in the music, they are quite right, Mozart’s symphonies have no beat. But which one of us would accept that statement as true? Of course Mozart’s symphonies have a beat. The difficulty in the student’s position is not that it is wrong–based on his assumptions in fact, it is exactly right. The difficulty is in a faulty definition of beat. If beat is present in music in which a beat cannot be explicitly heard, then it must be true that a beat is not something that has to be heard, or something that even is heard at all. Those drum beats in the rock song coincide with the beat, but are not the beat itself.

A beat in music is a series of equally spaced points in time that a listener extrapolates from the musical sounds he or she hears. Within these points of time one sound may occur, which coincides with the beat as in our rock song, or two or more sounds can occur, producing a division of the beat. The first of these sounds still coincides with the
beat, the others are divisions of the beat. At times, one of these points in time may be silent. These points of silent time are in music are called rests. There is still a beat perceived during the point of silent time, proving that a beat is not something that is heard, and a division of that point of silent time can still occur in the form of one or more sounds that precede the next beat. There are also occurrences where a note begins on a beat and has a duration that extends into one or more subsequent beats. Again, as the note is held out across multiple beats, those after the initial one are not heard but still perceived.

Rhythm is quite a different thing from beat. Rhythm is physically present in the musical sounds, beat is not. Listeners audiate beat from hearing rhythm patterns, and they audiate meter from the audiated beat. Although beat and rhythm are different, they are closely associated and dependent. This is immediately apparent if you ask a musician to play a beat without playing a rhythm. It cannot be done. Even if the musician just plays steadynotations identical notes on a drum, he is playing a rhythm that coincides with the beat. Rhythm patterns reveal the beat, and the meter. Whereas beat is comprised of equally spaced point in time, rhythm is comprised of sounds heard in relation to those points in time.  Beyond that, there are other difference as well. Whereas the points in time that are the beat are equally spaced, the sounds from which a rhythm is created can be equally spaced, but are most frequently of varying durations. This is most easily stated by saying that beat is steady whereas rhythm changes.

The trouble we run into hear is that in common usage a hip hop beat is actually a rhythm. We see this misuse frequently in marketing of composing technology. Just Google “hip hop beat” and you will find dozens of beat making items, all of them generating or providing rhythms typical of the rap genre. It is probably one of those battles that is unwinnable, but students should at least understand that when discussing types of music
other than rap, a beat is a different thing. With some careful and focused listening, students can in fact hear a true beat to which has been added the characteristic rap rhythms that all together form the “beat.”  It is also valuable to show students a video of a rapper rapping. Have them observe the body movements of the rapper, especially his hands. They are often moving to a beat, but never to the rhythm of the rap. This visually portrays the difference between beat and rhythm: the beat coincides with the rappers physical movements, while the rhythm is heard in the words being rapped.

Let me conclude by returning to our music director who asks his players to follow the beat they see him conducting. If beat is audiated from rhythm, how can an ensemble play to a beat where no rhythm is heard? The players in actuality cannot “follow” a visual representation of a beat. They must audiate the rhythms they are about to play, and then the beat from the audiated rhythms. The conductor’s gestures may serve as a stimulus for audiation, but they cannot in and of themselves, produce a beat from the ensemble. This is why so many conductors have so much trouble getting student ensembles to follow them; they are asking the students to do the impossible. Professional musicians can overcome this by relying on their knowledge of the music and their audiating skills, but student musicians cannot, and so do not play with the desired beat until it is at last drilled into them after many taxing attempts. The best way to get students to play with a particular beat is to teach them the rhythms involved first, and then allow them to audiate the beat from the rhythms.

Classical Music and Contemporary Culture

2011 Symposium2

Elsewhere on this site, I wrote about the top 25 classical music works, and key words that help explain why they are as popular as they are. After writing that post, I decided to take the results to my eighth grade students and see if the key words in the survey resonated with these adolescents. Some of them are reluctant to listen to classical music, but many of them were surprised to find how much classical music was already familiar to them through the media. For my inquiry, I made a list of 10 pieces from the top 25. These pieces were the first theme from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, the finale from the 1812 overture, allegro from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the toccata from toccata & fugue in d minor by J.S. Bach, the finale from the William Tell overture, Pachelbel’s canon in d, “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, the opening from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Infernal Galop” from Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach, and “Hallelujah” from The Messiah. For each excerpt I had the students circle all choices that applied to complete the sentence “What I like most about this music is…” from the following list: a. the rhythm and the beat, b. I recognize this music from a cartoon, c. I heard it at a wedding I attended, c. I heard it on tv or in a film, d. the melody is easy to remember and/or sing, e. the music evokes a strong emotion in me i.e. joy, scary, sad, excited, etc.

The results indicated to me how important contemporary culture is to the enjoyment of classical music. Thirty students participated (n = 30). The results are given shown in table 1.

Table 1 Tally and Percentage of each choice for each excerpt

  Total Percentage
The rhythms and the beat 116 64
I recognize this music from a cartoon


93 52
I heard it at a wedding


28 16
I heard it on TV or in a film


168 93
The melody is easy to remember and/or sing


82 46
The music evokes a strong emotion in me 58 32

Students indicated that what they liked most about the classical music they heard was that it was familiar to them from television or film. The students gave this as a reason for liking the classical music they heard 93% of the time. None of the other reasons were close. Of the remaining choices, the next most often chosen reason was the rhythm and the beat, which was given as an answer 64% of the time. This also points to contemporary cultural influences, because contemporary popular music privileges the musical elements of rhythm and beat. On other occasions, my students have told me that the absence of a prominent beat (by which they often mean rhythm too) was the reason they did not care for a particular classical music work.

The low placement of “the music evokes a strong emotion in me” is interesting. At one point in the closure portion of the lesson, as student asked how music could be expressive if their were no words. He had not considered that the music itself, that is the musical elements of rhythm, pitch and so forth, could in and of themselves be expressive. With adolescents so focused on the beat and rhythm and after that the lyrics, expressive qualities of the music apparently often go unnoticed. This suggests that even when students are just listening to music, when there are lyrics, much of the music is background to the privileged elements of lyrics, beat and rhythm. This indicates to me the need to teach more instrumental music and to focus on expressive use of musical elements in contemporary popular music when using it in a lesson. To be sure, pop, rap, and rock composers frequently are not trying to be expressive beyond the lyrics, but there are enough songs where the music is expressive, particularly among pop ballads,  to be useful in teaching students to recognize and enjoy the expressiveness of music.

I also see in all this a recommendation for symphony orchestras. They need to take back their music; reclaim their repertoire from the popular media. Many of the works on that list of the most popular ones were orchestral classics long before the movies, commercials and television programs scooped them up and popularized them. These pieces need to graduate from pops concerts and be featured often to young audiences. These new concert goers will delight in hearing this familiar repertoire, and will, I believe, develop a curiosity about other works by the same or similar composers, and in this way be drawn to return to the concert hall.

Reflective Questions for 5th Grade Music Composition

2011Symposium_1_2Today I am going to discuss questions students can use to reflect on their creative musical work. In Connecticut, these questions are part of the Common Core Assessments for music. Each question gets at an important musical aspect or concept, and helps focus students on more than just getting notes down on paper and singing or playing what they have written. These questions move a student’s musical thinking up to a higher level, and deepen musical understanding. You will see that the questions also go beyond what can be seen on paper, into the realm of what is heard and perceived in the composer’s mind.

The first question is, “what pitch is your tonal center?” An advanced composer will know immediately what the tonal center is, because they had it in mind the whole time they were composing. Even so, this question presents the opportunity to check if the intended tonal center is fact the tonal center a listener hears when the musical work is performed. For the novice composer who has perhaps not audiated what he or she has composed, this question demands that the piece be heard, either in physically present sound or through audiation, and the tonal center determined. After listening to a melody, a tonal center may be poorly established or not present at all, in which case revisions are called for that will establish or strengthen a tonal center. This question alone can bring out substantial learning.

The next two questions are follow ups to the first: “Where is the first time the tonal center pitch occurs in your composition?” and “where is the last time the tonal center pitch occurs in your composition?” These questions require that the student composer not only know what the tonal center is, but also where it occurs. It is relatively easy to recognize a tonal center when it is the last note of a melody; the closure that the tonic pitch brings is highly noticeable. But recognizing it in the midst of a melody, especially if it does not occur at the end of a phrase, is more challenging, especially for less experienced students. These questions make the student composer aware of where and how the tonal center has been used, and how the tonal center brings relaxation to a melody, between instances of relative tension from other tones. Although not included in the Connecticut set of questions, locating all occurrences of the tonal center can also be instructive, especially if there is too much or too little tension in the overall melody.

The next two questions address matters of rhythmic structure. First, “what rhythmic values did you use?” For this question, the student is to identify note values employed. As with the tonal center, these should have been audiated during the composing process, and should be recognizable by composer and audience alike upon hearing the work performed. Unless the rhythm is audiated, students will have difficulty in determining where the beats are, which in turn is needed for audiating the meter. Equally important is that the written symbols be correctly identified as representing the audiated durations. .After identifying the rhythmic values, the student is then asked, “How many beats are there in each measure of your composition?” In all likelihood, a number was determined as part of the assignment, but this still needs to be checked by the student as part of his or her reflection. This is also where identifying rhythmic values in the context of a beat is useful. Students must not mistake two eighth notes as two beats, or a half note for one beat. As students answer this question, the teacher can check for any misunderstandings of beat due to flawed audiation or understanding of the concept of beat itself.

Upon completing these reflective questions, students will have a well-grounded and thorough understanding of the musical elements of tonality, beat, rhythm, and meter, and will in many cases have been challenged to “think in music” to a much greater extent than they would have otherwise, even while and in response to composing music. Tomorrow, I will discuss reflective questions having to do with the actual performance of the composed musical work.

Describing Music and Teaching Music

2011Symposium_1_2If you are a music reader, want you to pretend you know nothing about music notation. If you don’t read music, you’re all set. Now take what I’m about to write absolutely literally. “A quarter note gets one beat, and a half note gets two beats.” Just from that description, do you know that the duration of a half note is twice as long as the duration of a quarter note, or did it sound like you should play two quarter notes, which are two beats, every time you see a half note? The latter is what many novice music students take the statement “a half note gets two beats” to mean. If one beat is a quarter note, it’s logical to think that a note that gets two beats gets two quarter notes. This misunderstanding is possible because note values are often defined as mathematical quantities and not durations. Children are used to seeing pictures of apples and pencils and ice cream cones on their math worksheets. Two pencils in one picture equal two apples in another. So it is reasonable to transfer mathematical logic to music when it is presented mathematically. A quarter note equals one beat. A half note equals two beats. Sing a half note. The child does two quarter notes because he or she was asked to sing two beats. It makes all the sense in the world.

Durations are measured with numbers, but they are measurements of  how long something we hear lasts over time, or how long an object takes to move from one point to another, or how long we waited at the doctor’s office in the waiting room. We can’t see time, we can only experience it and represent it abstractly with numbers. A duration is not how many of something there is, like apples in a basket, but of how long it takes for something to occur, from onset to offset, from start to finish, from beginning to end. You can have two quarter notes and two half notes. There are two of each, but knowing that is not helpful in knowing how to perform either, and although there are two of each, and they are all notes, they are not the same notes; they have different durations. The half note has a duration of two beats and the quarter note has a duration of one beat. Both are single notes, but they last for different amounts of time, measured (usually) in beats.

In music, we generally have a reference note that is equal to the duration we consider the beat. This duration isnote_hierarchy called the ictus. Where the quarter note is the unit of measure, a half note is an elongation of the beat. This is a helpful term, because it describes something longer than something else, not bigger or in greater quantity. Elongation means to make longer, so a half note is longer than a quarter note, not multiple reproductions of it. A whole note is also an elongation of the beat, but also an elongation of a half note. How much longer? Two beats longer. Beats is the unit of measuring the duration of a note.

If there are notes (durations) that are longer than the beat, there are also notes (durations) that are shorter than the beat. If the unit of one beat equals a quarter note, then an eighth note is a division of the beat. Once again, we want to avoid language like, “a quarter note gets two eighth notes.” This can lead to children playing two notes when they see a quarter note, just as they did with the half note. Describe eighth notes as durations. Eighth notes last only half as long as quarter notes, so two of them can be sung or played in the same time as one quarter note. Children can tap quarter notes with their heels while chanting eighth notes, and experience the durational relationship between them. As students get older and more advanced, the same approach should be taken with other note durations that are both smaller and larger than those discussed here. The important thing to remember is that notes have duration measured in beats; they do not have beats. Through hearing patterns of durations, which we call rhythms, we are able to detect a beat, but that beat is made manifest by the pattern of durations. Keeping the concepts of duration and beat separate will clear up many rhythm problems commonly encountered in our teaching.

Resources for The Amazing Human Musical Mind

2011Symposium_1_2Over the last ten posts, I offered a series on early childhood music education. Today, I’d like to share with you some of the songs I mentioned and recommended in that series. Below you will find some videos of music educators performing these songs. The materials from John Feierabend are available from GIA Publications.

“The Crabfish” is a delightful song that children enjoy. It is one of those stories one can sing to children while they just listen and enjoy.

“No More Pie” is an echo song used to develop a good singing voice and accurate repetition. I also suggested using the song with your own words to help children memorize days of the week, the weather, or whatever you are teaching them.

Here is a video of an early childhood music class with parents participating. You will see children trying to time their movements to those of the adults, and you will see the adults swaying and moving their child to the music as they sing. There is extensive use of percussion instruments, especially claves and shaker eggs. These add sound to the movements. In the video, the parents are moving their child’s arms while the child holds on to a shaker egg. By doing this, the child can hear a sound that coincides with each movement. Locomotor moments are also used when the children get up to jump and dance with their parent. There are many good things going on in this class.

Once children pass from informal to formal instruction, there can be an expected response from children. The child is no longer in music babble, but can now repeat musical patterns with some accuracy. An activity like this one, where the child is expected to tap three times, skip a beat and pass an object on the skipped beat is an example of a musical activity with an expected response form the child. The child is applying timing, beat and motor skills to a musical activity. You could use a story you read to the class that has a repeated phrase. Have the children clap to the rhythm of the words of that phrase overtime they hear it.

I hope these video examples help you to better understand how to implement music in your classroom. They are intended as a companion to my previous ten posts, “The Amazing Human Musical Mind.” Be sure to contact me if you have any comments or questions about using music in your classroom or with your own children at home.

The Amazing Human Musical Mind, Part 10

2011Symposium_1_2Today I conclude my series on early childhood music, and the amazing things even the youngest minds can do musically.

Another way you can work singing into your normal routine is to converse with children by singing. All it takes is two or three pitches, and you can easily say or ask children anything while you sing. For example, you could sing Boys and girls; it’s circle time going back and forth between two pitches.You could also sing directions, such as, Sit in a circle and then I’ll read you a poem. Or, you can use call and response. Ask your children what day of the week it is, and then they sing back the answer.  Boys and girls, what day is it? Mr. Adams, it is Friday. All this on just two pitches, like the two you hear children naturally chant when they are playing. Musicians recognize these pitches as so and mi. You’re still teaching what you were going to teach anyway, but at the same time you are engaging your children’s musical minds, building their brainpower beyond what just answering in words would. This kind of singing has the double advantage of not only using the singing voice to explore pitch space, but also using rhythm to strengthen that temporal reasoning we were talking about. When things are chanted or sung in rhythm, people have to predict when the next beat and word are going come, so they can be prepared to sing or chant it. They also connect repeated patterns to previously occurrences, which again is temporal reasoning. Using poems spoken in meter accomplishes the same thing. As children listen to you read a poem in rhythm and meter, they are timing the occurrence of the next word and even of the next period, which sounds as a pause placed at a predictable point in time. Here, I’ll show you what I mean: Hickory Dickory Dock, the mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one; the mouse ran down, hickory, dickory dock. If I had chanted this aloud to you, I’m sure everyone one of you, whether you were aware of it or not, would have begun keeping time with my chanting, and would have been satisfied, even happy when I paused at all the expected places, and you all would have known exactly how the last line was going to go, because before I finished you recognized that it was the same as the first line, which you had already heard and still remembered.

A different kind of song is one that is short but does not have segments for imitating. With a song like this, youMusicEar sing the entire song to the class three or four times, or until they can sing it to you. “Johnny Has One Friend” is useful because it can be used to teach or review numbers. Teach the children to quietly tap the heels of their feet, or patch a beat that you give them while you sing to them. There’s an amusing unpredictability at the end, which after a few times through becomes predictable, once the children realize that at the end of each time through, the number of Johnny’s friends increases by one. You can say, “now, sing the song to me, and when you get to the end, show me with your fingers how many friends Johnny has now.” After several days of using this song, I would then ask, “who will sing Johnny?” When a child volunteers, ask them how many friends they want Johnny to have, and have the child sing that number at the end. Or, you can have a group of students, or of cut-out boys and girls and have the child count the number of children they see and sing that number. If a child forgets how the song goes, do not correct him or her, but simply take the next turn singing. This gives the child a chance to hear the song again. Let one other child have a turn, and then return to the child who had trouble. He or she has now heard it twice, once by you and once by another child, and will probably sing it correctly or at least better now.  This is a good teaching strategy. When a child cannot respond correctly, let the child hear the correct response from someone else, then return to the child and have him or her give the correct response. Even though he or she didn’t think of the response on his or her own, the response is now reinforced as it is repeated.

There will be other times when you will just want to sing your class a song and just have them listen, just as you do when you read them a story. Both have the same benefit; the children are hearing vocabulary, and remembering what you are singing for future reference and use. Here’s a song like that. This song is called “The Crabfish.” There is an excellent storybook published by the same name, so this song can be a connection to literacy. I would use this song with 4-year-olds. Have the children quietly patch the beat while you sing, but otherwise listen quietly.

The Amazing Human Musical Mind, Part 1

2011Symposium_1_2Over the next days, I will be sharing a presentation I gave at two conferences of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). In this session, I gave an overview of what the very youngest human minds can do musically, and how early childhood educators who are not music teachers can still include music in their programs.

Before I go into the specifics of what a newborn and infant brain is capable of musically, and you may be surprised to find that those brand new brains are already quite musical, I’d like to highlight why teachers who aren’t music teachers should even give notice to music in their classrooms. Tom Barnes recently wrote a piece on the subject, and I will quote from him now. “An epic longitudinal study by researchers at the German Institute for Economic Research concluded in no uncertain terms that music training “improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance.” All the way back in 1999, James Caterall, an arts education policy analyst at UCLA, found that students who studied music had higher grades, higher test scores, better attendance records and higher rates of community engagement than other students. That has a neurological basis too. Mathematics, especially, are aided by music education because it targets a very specific set of brain activity: the development of spatial-temporal reasoning. Highly developed spatial-temporal faculties are imperative for working through solutions to the complex problems in fields such as architecture, engineering, science and, obviously, mathematics. Even more compellingly, UCLA’s study found that these benefits were even more pronounced in students from low-income families, proving once again that music education plays a major role in closing the achievement gap. Disadvantaged students who performed with their school band or orchestra were more than twice as likely to be performing at the highest levels of math than peers who did not receive musical training.” When we ignore or minimize children’s access to music education, so much cognitive development simply never takes place. When you include music in your classroom, and encourage your parents to provide a musical environment at home, you are beginning furthering your children’s aptitude, their capacity to learn, literally for the rest of their lives.

There is also the matter of intelligence. The days of defining intelligence as an I.Q. score arrived at from primarily choosing-beautiful-musicmathematical and linguistic data are fortunately a thing of the past. Those tests assumed a definition of intelligence that we now know was incomplete and misleading. The idea that a person possesses a single measurable intellectual capacity called intelligence is no longer defensible. Instead, people possess many autonomous intellectual capacities, among which are linguistic and mathematical ones. Howard Gardner, author of “The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” wrote that to be considered an intelligence, the competency must entail the skills of resolving genuine problems, and finding or creating problems as a beginning for acquiring new knowledge. These, according to Gardner, are the hallmarks of “intellectual strengths that prove of some importance within a cultural context.” Besides mathematical and linguistic intelligences, people also possess a musical intelligence. People who possess a high musical intelligence are good at recognizing musical patterns and tones, good at remembering songs and melodies, and have absorbed from their environment a rich understanding of musical structure, rhythm and pitches. Such people can utilize these dominant skills to use rhythms and patterns to assist learning, and such people are particularly skillful in performing and composing music, and are skillful at understanding musical forms and structure when listening to music. Because this view of intelligence is based on skills, and because skills can be learned, intelligence can be increased through learning and practice, but only within a limited time window. Gardner also wrote that, “of all the gifts with which individuals may be endowed, none emerges earlier than musical talent. …except among children with unusual musical talent or exceptional opportunities, there is little further musical development after the school years begin.” Research done by Edwin Gordon, author of Music Learning Theory, support Gardner’s statement. Do you see what we come to here? There is a window of opportunity for children to develop their musical brains, and to take full advantage of developing their musical thinking potential, and that window shuts at the very moment in their lives when they are beginning kindergarten. The problem is that for many children, kindergarten is the first opportunity children are given to receive formal musical training, yet by then, it is already too late to recapture musical growth that was still possible during preschool years. If you and your parents don’t engage your children musically during the pre-school years, it will be too late to recover the learning and growth potential that could have been realized during those years.

Rhythm, Beat, and Groove: What’s the Difference?

2011Symposium_1_2It all seems simple in the early grades. Beat is the steady pulse of the music, and rhythm is the changing durations of what is being sung or played. Using movement, students learn the difference between beat and rhythm by walking the beat while clapping the rhythm. Because they are not doing the same thing with their feet and hands, the point that they are not the same is easily made. The issue becomes more complicated when the students get older. Around age eleven, they develop their own musical preferences, and become more attached to the music of popular culture. With this change in how they relate to music and relate music to their peers, students begin talking about the beat in a different way. They use the word to describe the overall rhythmic affect on them that the music has; an understanding more accurately described as groove. Groove is the combined affect of beat and rhythm on the body; it is a word that describes how our body responds to music with movement. Labeling groove as beat glosses over rhythmic structure of music, making it almost certain that understandings of its component parts, that is rhythm, beat and meter, will be overlooked.

As music teachers, we are up against a misunderstanding brought about by common yet misleading usage of the thinking musicword beat. Part of the solution is to be sure our teaching goes beyond vocabulary, and includes application and experience. Defining beat as the steady pulse of the music is only engaging the intellect in learning the concept–it does not develop the deeper understanding that comes from experiencing the beat while being aware of what is being experienced, and manipulating the beat with creative and interpretive actions, which provides relevance and even deeper understanding. Here is how this could play out in a classroom. First, the teacher has taught the students what beat, rhythm and groove are, so that they can define each. This is the intellectual part of learning a concept, and must come first. Then the students might hear the music teacher play a repeated rhythm pattern–one which is easily recognized by the students. Then the teacher plays the same repeated rhythm pattern, but at a different tempo, and asks the students of the three elements, beat, rhythm, and groove, which one or ones have changed? The activity is then repeated, but with the students playing the pattern on body percussion or rhythm instruments. When ever either beat or rhythm changes, groove will be affected. Groove should not be confused with style. Funk is a style, not a groove. The groove of funk is the affect of the characteristic rhythms and beat of the funk style. That affect will always change when either rhythm or beat is changed, so groove can change even when style does not.

When a student says that a song has a beat that they like, it most likely is the groove they are referring to. Redirecting the conversation to groove opens up the opportunity to discover what combination of rhythm and beat created the groove that the student likes, and presents creative opportunities for students to explore tinkering with the rhythm and beat separately to alter the groove. Students tend to be deeply entrenched in a small number of rhythms that repeatedly occur in the music they listen to, so creating new rhythms that result in the same or similar groove helps widen their appreciation of music, and moves them from being music consumers to music creators, an important step in becoming educated musically. Students must come to understand that songwriters and composers have beat, rhythm and beat at their disposal to manipulate however they choose, and that the results of those creative decisions is a particular groove and/or style, and is very much related to the music creator’s expressive intent.

Syncopation, Meter, and Beat: You Really Can’t Separate Them

2011Symposium_1_2Syncopation is an interesting subject for music teachers in many countries around the world. On the one hand, right from childhood, people hear syncopated rhythms in folk and popular music styles everyday. The sound of syncopation, and the frequently used rhythm patterns that constitute syncopated rhythms are familiar, and most can quickly learn to correctly sing a song that uses syncopation. A person doesn’t have to know they are singing syncopation in order to correctly sing syncopation. People audiate these rhythm patterns once they have been learned by listening. The trick comes when people are taught that what they are listening to or singing, or playing is syncopation. Once the word is introduced, and it is used to label those particular kinds of rhythm patterns, an explanation of just what syncopation is must be given.

Most music educators will agree that syncopation is present when a note that normally is metrically weak is, through accent or elongation, made metrically strong. This seems simple enough until one considers that in order for this definition to make any sense, a person needs to have an understanding of beat and meter, including the hierarchy of strong and weak beats within beats, measures, pairs of measures, phrases, and so on. As is often the case, I find that eurhythmics offers the best approach to making this rhythmic structure clear to students. Children from a very early age move to the beat of music, particularly if they have received formal music training. Children who “keep the beat with their feet” can walk to the beat of music that is played for them, whether live or recorded. Once children are doing that, theirthinking music attention can then be drawn to what they hear between their steps. Children who are hearing eighth notes and walking to quarter notes are hearing one note between their steps. They might clap eighth notes while walking to quarter notes, and become more aware of that note in between the beats. So far, everything is still pretty comfortable because all of the strong notes, the first eighth note in each pair, is on the beat, and so there is a familiar pattern of strong-weak that feels natural with the steps of walking. Strong notes always coincide with a step. But now take the rhythm of eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter rest. The strongest note, the quarter note, is now between steps, and the second step feels like a rhythmic resolution of a rhythmic dissonance that is the quarter note. The eighth note that follows, being weaker than the quarter note, feels like an anacrusis to the third step, and the fourth step strongly marks the end of the phrase, leaving the child prepared to begin the next. That strong note between steps is syncopation. Whenever a strong note between beats is heard, that is syncopation.

Other instances of syncopation can be less easily heard. For example, in common time the rhythm quarter, half, quarter is considered syncopated, but if one is using the quarter note as the tactus, the syncopated half note occurs on the second beat, not between beats. How, then can this be syncopation? The answer is that as long as the listener is tracking quarter notes as the tactus, this rhythm will not be perceived as syncopated; however, if the listener uses the half note as the tactus, then this same rhythm is felt as syncopated. Similarly, in our previous example, if eighth notes were the tactus, then the eighth, quarter, eighth note pattern would not be heard as syncopated. A note must be in a metrically weak position, that is between beats, and be given metrical strength by such methods as elongation or accent, in order to qualify as syncopation. If a rhythm is to be perceived as syncopated, the right tactus must be set up ahead of time. From this we see that syncopation is dependent not only on rhythm, but also on the beat and specifically on what note value the listener perceives as the tactus.This is why trying to teach syncopation with mnemonic syllables is always likely to fail. Mnemonic syllables relate note values to each other, but not to a tactus. Syncopa, popular with Kodaly teachers, establishes that there is a longer note value between two shorter ones, but it does not make clear what the underlying beat is. A child could just as easily count the middle note as one beat or two. Mnemonic syllables must be placed within a metrical context and an established beat to be effective. By definition, syncopation, meter, and beat cannot be separated if students are to acquire a true understanding of syncopation.

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.