Toccata Blocks: A Tool To Help Teach Rhythm

Version 2No matter what method you use to teach music, be it Kodaly, Orff, or any other, when it comes to music reading there are certain aspects of our music notational system that are counter-intuitive and confusing to students who are just beginning. One of those difficulties is often the irrelevance of how the notes are spaced on the page. Students naturally assume that notes that are closer together go faster, and notes that are spaced further apart go slower. They will even carry this into the same note value. For example, they will think that quarter notes spaced closely together go faster than quarter notes spaced further apart. The concept of how the note head, stem, and/or beam are drawn can become overlooked, leading the student to make frequent rhythmic errors.

It is always good pedagogy to start from where students are and work from there to where you want them to arrive. Rather than dismiss using spacial perception as wrong, why not take advantage of children’s intuitive ability to perceive spacing in teaching them to read note durations accurately? Catherine Schane-Lydon has invented Toccata Blocks that do just that.

toccata blocks

The basic set includes blocks with time signatures and notes on blocks that fit onto a provided easel. The easel is exactly the width of the blocks for a time signature and the correct number of beats of notes. A whole note block is the width of four quarter note blocks or four paired eighth note blocks. Single eighth note blocks are half the width of quarter note blocks and so forth. There are easels for simple and compound time signatures. Once an easel and time signature are chosen, the child builds a measure of rhythm by placing blocks on the easel. If the easel is less than filled, the child knows more notes are needed. If the easel is over filled, with a block hanging over the end, the child knows there are too many beats. This design makes building rhythms self-correcting because the child knows when he or she has done it right because the blocks will exactly fit across the easel.

I gave a set to students in middle school, and students in 2nd grade. An 8th grader said, “it [toccata blocks] helped me learn how the notes go together.” A 2nd grader remarked, “making rhythms is fun with these blocks. I got it wrong at first, but now it fits.”

I also used my set of Toccata Blocks to do a full class demonstration. I began a rhythm and then called on student to finish the measure. After each addition of a block, I asked the class if the measure was finished. “Do the blocks fit perfectly?” The children would look and respond, then give me suggestions on what block I should put in next. If the next block hung over the end, they were quick to reject that choice and make another of a shorter note duration. Almost every student I gave these blocks to to use immediately understood how they worked, and were able to correctly create a measure of rhythms.

Of course, I want students to write rhythms on conventional music paper, so it was important for me to make sure they took note of what notes they were using, and didn’t just fill up the easel randomly. So I had them tell me with each block they added how many beats that block added, how many beats they had, and how many more they needed. It was helpful to them to learn the note durations, and it delighted our school math coach!

Once they wrote original rhythms on paper, they could go back to the Toccata Blocks to check their work. They would exactly place what they had written on the easel, and see if it properly filled the easel or not. If not, they could not make corrections with the Toccata Blocks, they had to make corrections on their paper, and then return to the Toccata Blocks to again check their work.

With the length of the blocks proportional to the duration of the note, it is also possible to use the blocks as prompts for creative movement. The whole note block is long, and so a long, extended movement is called for. The quarter note blocks are short, so they call for smaller movements. Turning this into a movement game, children draw blocks like playing cards, then begin walking around the room. If a whole note is drawn, one giant step that takes four beats is taken. If a quarter note is drawn, then four smaller steps that traverse the same distance as the child who took the giant step is taken. Using them in this way helps students deepen their understanding of why the blocks are different lengths, and how the various note durations relate to each other.

Students worked well in small groups finding blocks to add to a group composed rhythm. I have learning centers set up in my classroom, and the Toccata Blocks make a good basis for such a center. With my older students, students who have composed a rhythm on the Toccata Blocks can then take it to students working on the keyboard to add pitches to the rhythm, making a short, one-measure melody. This rhythm then can become the basis for extending a melody.

The blocks are made of durable hard plastic. I anticipate that they will stand up well to classroom use. There is also a CD included with rhythms for students to build with the Toccata Blocks, taking dictation from the CD. The basic set includes quarter and eighth note durations in simple and compound time signatures. Supplemental sets add sixteenth notes to the basic set. Each block has a note on one side and the equivalent rest on the reverse side, so students can learn both notes and rests together. Toccata blocks are suitable for students in second grade and older, though one must be aware that many of the blocks could be a choking hazard for children prone to put such things in their mouth. I have had encouraging success with Toccata Blocks. They are certainly worth looking into. For more information, go to


Rhythm All Around

2011 Symposium2

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I enjoy playing golf. I also enjoy watching the PGA on television most weekends. Often, I will hear the commentators discussing a players rhythm, especially if things aren’t going well for him. They’ll comment that his rhythm is off. The use of the word rhythm to describe what a golfer does to produce his swing is worth considering here. For the golfer, rhythm refers to a sequence of events, and the timing of each of those events within the sequence. The backswing, hinging the hands, the downswing, contact with the ball, movement past the ball, and the rotating of the hands. All of these things must occur in that order, and must occur at the right time within the swing in order for the shot to be successful. Furthermore, there is an organic nature to all the events. Any one of them, or any part of the sequence without the rest of it, is useless. The golf swing cannot deliver the ball to the target if any of the events in the sequence is missing, in the wrong order, or mistimed.

Now consider rhythm in music. Rhythm in music also consists of a sequence of events, each event comes in a specified order in the sequence, and each event must occur at precisely the right time. If any of those is out of place, the rhythm is changed and in fact becomes a different, unintended rhythm. While it is possible to have a single note duration, as it is possible to just hinge one’s hands with a golf club and do nothing else, the benefit or even utility of either in isolation is not worth the effort. Nobody can make a golf shot by just hinging their hands, and very few if any person would claim “I Got Rhythm” by playing or singing a single note. In the real world, rhythms are sequences or combinations of note durations, not a collection of individual ones.

If you’re not sure this is so, if you think that learning rhythm is about counting beats and holding notes, then consider this: tap out the rhythm of any song that comes to mind. I like Mozart, so I’m tapping out the Allegro theme from the overture to The Magic Flute. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t just tap one note and then stop, tap another note and then stop, and so forth. No, I tapped the whole thing at once: bum bum bum bum bum bu-da-bu-da bum bum bum bum bum bu-da-bu-da bum bum bum bum bum bum. That’s therecite-h75jye rhythm. If you asked a student to tap out that rhythm, and they just went bum, or da, or bu, I’m guessing you would not accept that as a good response. The rhythm is the whole sequence of musical events that makes a motif or phrase or theme or theme group, or section, or movement, or entire piece of music. When Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm,” he needed a whole sequence of durations to make the catchy, irresistible song that has a rhythm we just can’t stay away from.

So what does all this have to do with teaching music? It is this: rhythms should not be taught as isolated durations, but only as patterns of durations. If you are going to teach a child what a whole note is, whether in general music, chorus, band, orchestra or wherever, present it as part of a pattern, so that it has a musical context. The last note in the antecedent phrases in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is a whole note, and so is the last note of the consequent phrase in the “Going Home” theme found in the second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” or the English Horn solo in his “Roman Carnival Overture.”  Have children listen to you perform these melodies, and then repeat them. Let their bodies experience what it feels like to sustain a tone that long by moving to all the durations, including and especially paying attention to the whole note. Band teachers, have you ever stopped to consider how boring it is to play whole note, whole rest, whole note, whole rest? How about two half notes and a whole note, and let the children choose which pitches to play? How about having students move their upper bodies to the pulse while they play half, half, whole. Have them do this standing up. If they’ve been taught the proper way to hold their instrument, some gentle swaying and leaning while they play won’t be a problem, and it will be a big aid in improving their rhythm.

Rhythm patterns that have whole notes, half notes, and/or dotted half notes in them are called elongation patterns, because those note durations are longer than one beat. They are the most difficult kind of rhythm to play, because one must audiate the beat without hearing it in the rhythm. For this reason, it is bad pedagogy to start with elongation patterns. It makes much more sense to start with rhythms in which the student can hear the pulse while audiating. This would include rhythms with quarter notes, and eighth note pairs. Half notes can be changed to quarter note and quarter rest so that the second beat is treated as a separate though silent event rather than an elongation spanning two beats. Throughout, the idea is to teach duration and pulse together, and not treat it like a mathematical operation. For quarter notes, make one sound on each pulse. For eighth note pairs, make two equal sounds on each pulse. Children will learn through imitation how to easily to the latter much more readily than being told each note gets one half beat.

After students are proficient at these patterns, then elongation patterns can be introduced. With their experience with beat patterns, students can think of a half note as two quarter notes tied, with the second quarter note taking the place of the quarter rest from the previous quarter note-quarter rest pattern. If you are using notation, you can easily demonstrate this on the board, though it is important to understand that none of what I have described so far needs musical notation. In fact, all of the patterns and songs in which they occur should be learned and performed without notation first, then revisited with notation later. Like our golf swing, rhythms must be continuous; one sound following another in perfect order and timing. That kind of fluency only comes from aural/oral practice first, and then attaching what has been learned to notation.

The difference between rhythm syllables and note kinds

2011 Symposium2

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 recite-fxefca 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.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Orff Schulwerk

2011 Symposium2

Today I will discuss the advantage and disadvantages of the Orff Schulwerk Approach to music education. At the outset, I should mention that no single method of teaching music is sufficient for meeting the needs of all children, or for teaching all aspects of music. Each method bring valuable perspectives into the music classroom, and the wise music educator utilizes the best of each in an eclectic approach. That said, let us take a look at the Orff Schulwerk method.

The Orff method is fundamentally a blending of music, speech and dance. Because rhythm is common to all three, it tends to be more prominently featured throughout the approach. The earliest teaching is done through speech, and movement. For example, a kindergarten class might learn the concept of high and low  using speech and movement. The teacher might play in the high and low registers of the piano and have the children change their body level to show which register they are hearing, high or low. For speech, the children might recite a story with a high voiced character, perhaps a boy or girl, and a low voiced character, perhaps a giant or a talking pig. Beat is taught with movement to the pulse of music played on the piano or from a recording. Locomotor (such a walking) and non-locomotor (such as conducting) movements are used. Through these kinds of activities, children build proficiency at recognizing and performing basic musical concepts from a reference point of familiar things they already do–speaking and moving–which are then applicable to singing and playing musical instruments. This progression, from familiar to new is a strength of the Orff approach.  From the speaking voice, children are introduced to other kinds of voices, including a singing voice, whispering voice, and calling voice. When children learn the difference between a singing voice and the others, they are able to focus their singing activities on basic good singing.

The combining of rhythm, beat and movement is not unique to the Orff approach. Laban and Dalcroze are well known for their use of movement to teach rhythm and beat. Orff’s substantial investment in movement make it a good choice for teaching students to rely on their bodies to understand enjoy rhythm and beat in music. Movement is also Orff Quoteimportant to playing instruments in the Orff approach. The method famously includes using barred instruments to play ostinato, harmony, and melodic parts. Because barred instruments are played with mallets on an instrument on which the notes are laid out horizontally, both vertical and horizontal movement is required to play. When the entire arm is used for striking the instrument, the body naturally counter balances itself with each stroke, thus infusing each note played with a physical experience of the rhythm being played. For this reason, it is important that students not be allowed to play from the wrists, but to engage the entire arm while playing barred instruments.

Further uses of movement can be added to the playing of these instruments. For example, if a child has a rest as part of the rhythm pattern in the ostinato, the mallets can be struck together on the rest, or they can be moved silently but rhythmically in the air to give motion to the rest. With slower rhythms, gestures reflecting articulation and resembling conducting motions can be made between notes. For example, if the song being accompanied is legato, then the children can move their hands with fluid, smooth motions from the wrist. All of this engages the body in music making and interpreting beyond what singing only can accomplish.

One aspect of the Orff approach that is frequently overlooked in music education in general is improvisation. Perhaps it is because most music teachers are trained using the Western art music model of studying an instrument or voice with classical music, and receiving nearly all musical training through notated music traditions that many music teachers without experience with jazz or other traditions that feature improvisation, are uncomfortable improvising or teaching improvising to others. This is troubling, because improvisation, to my way of thinking, is essential to developing music literacy and fluency. Improvisation is the musical equivalent to conversation. Imagine how dreadful our communication would be if we could only talk to each other from what we read. On their website, the New England Orff Chapter offers that “improvisation permeates all aspects of Schulwerk activity. Children who regularly improvise and create their own dances and musical settings are uniquely prepared to solve problems in many other contexts.” Notice that even here, improvisation includes not only music, but dance as well. This focus on improvisation is another strength of the Orff approach.

Whereas the use of movement in teaching rhythm is a strength of  the  Orff method, the method of teaching rhythm for singing and chanting is problematic. Orff believed that speech was a natural way of teaching musical rhythm. He used the rhythm of words and Orffthen transferred those word-rhythms to drums in order to teach rhythms. Chanting words, phrases and nursery rhymes is a common practice among teachers using the Orff approach. While using words to learn rhythms is indeed natural to the child, the words chanted cannot easily be generalized to notated rhythms like rhythm syllables can. Also , because words have their own meaning apart from their rhythm, they are difficult to dedicate to a particular rhythm in memory. In other words, “du de du” means nothing apart from two eighth notes and a quarter note, whereas “lumber jack” means both a person who cuts down trees for a living and two eighth notes and a quarter note. But it only means the latter when associated with music. Also, “lumber jack” tells the student nothing of the function of any of the notes. Where as “du” is always a macro beat, “lum” could be a macro beat or an anacrusis. Also, “lum” and “jack” are both on macro beats, but are given entirely different labels. Because of this, the way in which rhythm literacy is taught in the Orff approach is a weakness of the method. It is greatly strengthened by abandoning the speech-to-rhythm aspect, and replacing it with rhythm syllables that make functions clear and consistent.

Overall, the Orff approach t music education has much to offer music educators and students. It’s emphasis on improvisation and extensive use of movement are strengths, while the less extensive use of singing (compared to Kodaly method and Music Learning Theory, and the approach to rhythm literacy are weaknesses. When the strengths of the Orff method are combined with the strengths of other approaches, the result is a solid, well founded, and comprehensive music education.

The Problem With Using Math to Teach Rhythm

2011 Symposium2

As I write this, I’m looking at a page from a popular band method book. There is one of those boxes at the top of the page that directs students’ attention to an important concept or new learning. There is a pair of eighth notes followed by an equals sign followed by a quarter note. Next to these symbols is printed, “two eight notes equal one quarter note.” We know what is meant by this; that both two eighth notes and one quarter note occupy the same duration in time. But there are important ways in which two eighth notes do not equal one quarter note. With the two eighth notes, there are two sounds made within a single beat, whereas with one quarter note, there is only one sound made within a single beat. The duration of the beats is equal, but not the notes. One is a duration equal to the length of one beat, the other is a division of that beat into two equal parts. When someone looks at two eighth notes, they do not see something that looks like one quarter note. They look different, and when a person hears two eighth notes and then one quarter note, they sound different, so how can they be equal?

For those that use Curwin/Kodaly rhythm syllables, two eighth notes have a different name than one quarter–yet another way in which they are different. Two eighth notes are called ti-ti, and one quarter note is called ta. There’s no equality in that. So two eighth notes don’t look the same as one quarter note, they don’t sound the same, and they often aren’t given the same name, so how can we expect children to understand the statement “two eight notes equal one quarter note?”

Those of us who don’t use the British nomenclature of quaver, semi-quaver, and so forth, run into another problem when trying to use math to teach rhythm. We call a note in common time with a duration of 4 beats a whole note, a note with a duration of 2 beats a half note, of one beat a quarter note, and so forth. This makes perfect sense in only one meter signature–common time. In three-four time, a half note is two thirds of a measure,  a quarter note is one third of a measure, and an eighth note is one sixth of a measure.  Whole notes completely disappear–or should we call a dotted half note a whole note in three-four time? It a pretty sloppy thing to call something a half when it’s really two thirds.

Meter isn’t supposed to be about counting and fractions, it’s about recurring patterns of Musical-Balancestrong and weak beats. Our teaching must show students how the notion indicates the beats, beat elongations (durations longer than one beat) and beat divisions (durations shorter than one beat). We don’t make the first beat of each measure stronger than the others because that’s how it’s notated, we notate it that way because that’s what we hear when we listen to or audiate that music. Math is important to music because we naturally perceive patterns of strong and weak beats, beats, divisions and elongations. It is the beats that are equal, not the configuration of notes that occur within the beats.

I like to illustrate this to my students in this way. I have four (for common time) or three (for triple meter) students come to the front of the class and stand apart, with equal distances between them. These students represent beats. I then walk from in front of one student to the next, taking one step. My single step represents a quarter note, and the students represent beats. I have a time keeper clap each time I arrive at the next student. Then I go back and walk again, this time taking two equal steps to get from one student to the next. Now my steps represent eighth notes. The time keeper will report that I still got to the next student in one clap, and that he or she clapped at the same tempo as I moved across in front of the students. The class will observe that in order to make it to the next student in the same amount of time, I had to make my smaller steps faster. The steps were half as big so I had to walk twice as fast. I then have the class do a walk around the room. When I play quarter notes, they take single big steps. When I play eighth notes, they take half-sized but twice as fast steps. They listen to me play the rhythm first, then they step it. This teaches them that the beats are equal, but not the notes, and that every beat is the same, but that some beats have divisions within it and some beats don’t.  So the next time you see or are ready to say “two eighth notes equal one quarter note,” remember, in the words of Ira Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Some Thought on Teaching Rhythm

2011 Symposium2

For those of us who received most of our musical training within the context of classical music, we sometimes forget that music is not primarily a written art, like the literary masterworks of Shakespeare or Milton, but an auditory art. While this may seem obvious, it is not so obvious to those who observe or learn from our teaching. Very often, music is taught as something that has to be read. Students typically are taught to read music before they are taught to play music. The learning sequence goes something like this: Name the note, state how many beats the note will be held, learn the fingering on an instrument, learn how to hold the instrument and (where applicable) how to form an embouchure, and then play the note. We teach notes one at a time until enough are learned this way to play a simple tune.

We often erroneously teach rhythm by having students read a note and teaching them how long the note is–how many beats. But this is all wrong if music is an auditory art. The sound is not a symbol for the printed music, the printed notes are symbols for the sound. We should not be asking or teaching our students how many beats a printed note they see on the page gets, we should be teaching them how many beats a tone they hear gets. How many beats does a tone someone else generates last, and how many beats does a tone that that the student him or herself generates last.  We should be asking questions like, “how many sounds do you hear on each beat? Is the tone longer or shorter than the beat?”  The problem from teaching music as a visual art is that beats are not notated in standard music notation. This makes it convenient and all too easy to ignore the beat when teaching rhythm, except to use beat as the unit of measurement stated in the answer to the question, “how many beats is this note?” The child succeeds at answering this unmusical question by memorizing the appearance on the page of a particular kind of note (half, whole, quarter, etc.) without ever hearing music or thinking a musical thought. Rhythm syllables recalled in response to the visual stimulus of a printed note provides the student with the number of syllables corresponding to the divisions of the beat, but does not help the student accurately distribute those divisions across the beat, or help the student sustain an elongation of the beat for the correct duration.  Listeners infer beats from rhythms, but the performer must generate rhythms from a beat audiated in advance of performing the rhythm, also from audiation. When students produce sounds on an instrument from notation without audiating what he or she is about to play, then that student is only decoding the symbols, and not really making music. Such methods turn music performance into a non-musical exercise of mathematics and executive skills. Is it any wonder that students then have difficulty performing the correct rhythm? They are abruptly required to produce a musical result from an unmusical training.

Here is how a rhythm teaching learning sequence should go:

  • Have the class perform a beat with a patsch or by tapping the heels of their feet.
  • You clap the same beat with them, and ask how many claps are on each beat.
  • As they continue with their beat, you clap twice on each beat, and ask the class how many claps are on each beat.

When this or a similar learning sequence is followed, rhythm becomes understandable through physical and aural means, and is more easily mastered.

Why Do Instrumental Music Students Have So Much Trouble With Rhythm?

2011 Symposium2

When I was a band director, I often wondered why it was that drum students so often had so much trouble with rhythm. For the most part, they didn’t have to learn how to read pitches, they had no fingerings to learn, no embouchure to form. All they had to do was hold a stick or two hand tap out rhythms. Why was it so difficult for them? The answer eventually came. Drummers are, at least with traditional pedagogy, trained to play standing still with the drum in front of them, and to play from the wrists, using a minimum of arm motion. Drum kit players use more arm and move around more, but most beginning drummers are started on a single snare drum, not a kit. Dr. Edwin Gordon pointed out that rhythm is understood through shifts of weight in the body. If the body doesn’t move, then no weight is shifted, and the body cannot understand the rhythm. The answer to my question was that drummers had trouble playing rhythm because they were always standing still while playing. I was intrigued by this, and immediately began teaching my drummers to move slightly from side to side just enough for there to be a weight shift. Immediately, their rhythm accuracy improved.

Encouraged, I decided to try the same approach with students playing otherEnsemble instruments who were struggling with rhythm. I told all my students, whether standing or sitting, to move slightly left and right while they played. This created the need to teach wind players how to keep the instrument constant in their embouchure, but that was a minor adjustment. Once again, their rhythm accuracy immediately improved. Gordon was right. The key is in shifting the weight.

Even though shifting weight helped both the snare drummer and the wind player improve rhythmic accuracy, there is an important difference between how those two instruments are played. A snare drummer is required to maintain a fixed relationship to the drum, because the drum is not being held, it is on a stationary stand on the floor. If the player moves, the drum will not move the player, and the relationship the instrument and the musician will change. This is compensated for by adjusting the arms and hands to move counter to the body so that the sticks stay on the drum in the correct way. By contrast, a wind player is holding the instrument, and can move the instrument with the body and in so doing maintain the same relationship with the instrument. In other words, the instrument connects with the embouchure at exactly the same angle and manner, even as the player moves, because the player moves the instrument with him or herself.

piano practicePianists must handle shifting weight similarly to the drummer. The pianist cannot move the instrument with their body, and so must adjust the arms and fingers so that they stay correctly placed on the keyboard, even as the torso shifts from side to side or from front to back. While it may be beneficial to teaching hand position to both the drummer and the pianist to have students remain still while playing, doing so will be to the detriment of learning and accurately performing rhythm. Of course, all of this must be constrained to small and manageable movements. Playing any instrument while performing a dance is difficult at best, and impossible for most of the students we teach. The movement I am referring to only needs to be sufficient for weight to be shifted, and generally only involves moving about six inches to one side or the other.

One other point to remember is that just as movement that causes weight shift is beneficial to rhythmic understanding and performance accuracy, movement that does not involve weight shift does nothing to help. Most notably among this category of movement is tapping one’s foot. Foot tapping is of no value in understanding rhythm, it is only of aid in counting beats. While there are times when beats must be counted, as when the player must perform an elongation of the beat, in most cases, counting is unnecessary and more of a hinderance than a help. It is made necessary in the absence of weight shifting and audiation. In fact, it is exactly because foot tapping is so often used as a replacement for auditing that rhythm problems are so common.

Regardless of the system you use to teach rhythm, be it numbers, rhythm syllables, or neutral syllables, weight shift and the slight movement that brings it about is necessary for learning and understanding rhythm. Rhythm syllables and neutral syllables are effective tools, and are part of sound training in audiation, but they alone are not sufficient to get the job done. There must also be weight shifting if students are to gain proficiency at rhythm.

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.

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.

What Is The Most Effective Way To Teach Rhythm?

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed rhythm, defining a rhythm as a group of durations that establishes beat and meter. Once beat and meter are established, then any single duration can be considered a rhythm, because its beat and metric functions are known. Because rhythm needs a beat and metric contextual basis, music teachers should avoid teaching rhythm in ways that overlook this basis. As I alluded to yesterday, merely counting the number of beats a note is to be held, and then moving on to the next note and counting out its duration makes overlooking metrical context convenient. When students deal with rhythm merely by counting, they are apt to get lost in the music, and the teacher is apt to think that the student does not understand rhythm, or worse, is incapable of playing or singing with correct rhythm. Such students, if not given effective strategies for learning rhythm, become discouraged and disheartened, loose interest in continuing lessons, and often just drop out. This “turn-off” to music can often be avoided if the teacher will take a proper approach to teaching rhythm.

Here is an effective method for teaching rhythm. It is an approach that follows Music Learning Theory.

Teach rhythm separately from other elements. This is especially important for instrumental students, because they have so much to attend to. Trying to learn rhythms, pitches, fingerings, articulation, holding position for playing, hand placement, etc. is easily overwhelming. Because rhythm is such a pivotal aspect of music, it makes sense to learn it separately, and then combine it in melodies.

Rhythms should be taught in patterns of durations, not in isolated durations. Learning rhythms in patterns allows both beat and meter to be clearly note_hierarchypresent in what the student hears and does. Students should be free to make small movements while chanting or playing rhythm patterns, so that the body experiences the beat and meter of each pattern. Music is a highly movement based art. Inhibiting bodily movement, or replacing it with counting seriously impedes a person’s ability to not only learn rhythm, but to experience and enjoy it too.

Before each set of patterns is taught, establish the beat and meter with a pattern that includes macro and micro beats. Gordon suggests du du-de du du-de to establish common time meter. Students should move their heels to the maco beats (on each du) and lightly patsch the micro beats (on each du and de). This helps them connect the durations with the meter and the beat.

Once the beat and meter are established, begin teaching a rhythm pattern by performing it for a student, and then having the student repeat the pattern with you. By chanting with you, the student will hear it done correctly as he or she tries to do it, and will learn it correctly. Once the student has learned the pattern, again perform it for him or her, and then have the student repeat the pattern on his or her own. By doing this, the teacher can evaluate the student’s performance. Be sure the student performs the pattern exactly as you did, with an even tempo, accurate durations, and correct rhythm syllables, if used. Periodically perform a rhythm pattern and then have the entire class repeat it, in order to reinforce the meter. Teach patterns in this way for 5-10 minutes of each class period. Then,  go on to teaching repertoire. You can point out patterns that have been learned or students can recognize them. In this way, students  will connect their rhythm learning to performing actual music.

As new rhythms or durations are introduced, they are always done so in the context of beat and meter. For example, when sixteenth notes in common time are added, they are understood as a micro beat of the micro beat; that is, a further division of the beat. They are an aural representation of the ratio of 2:1, micro-beat to sixteenth note, or 4:1, macro beat to sixteenth note. Likewise, half notes and whole notes are understood as elongations of the beat in a 2:1 relationship to the macro beats, and as a duration that lasts two beats. It is critical that the properties of division and elongation of a known beat be prominent in everyone’s mind all the time when learning and preforming rhythm.