Rhythm is one of the most fundamental elements of music and often the element that many students struggle to master. Teaching beginning music students is very rewarding but teaching rhythm to beginners can be exceptionally challenging as most of them tend to focus on learning the notes first. Luckily, teaching rhythm doesn’t have to be difficult. Following a few steps can make rhythmic development simple and set your students up for long term success.
What is rhythm?
Rhythm is movement consisting of a regulated pattern of regular and irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak beats. Try explaining that complicated definition to your beginner student and watch their eyes glaze over as they shake their head and say “ok.”
Rhythm at its basic form is the key element of music. It is what makes music sound good and what differentiates one melody from another. In short, rhythm is what makes each piece of music different.
To explain this concept to a beginner use the song Joy to the World. The first eight notes of Joy to the World are simply a descending major scale. The rhythm is what differentiates the song from the scale.
Why is rhythm so important?
Rhythm is what makes music…well music. All music consists of a combination of rhythms that give a characteristic quality to the melody making one melody distinctly different from another.
Once a student has a comprehensive understanding of rhythm, they will be able to sightread proficiently and learn music quickly.
Three different systems of rhythmic counting.
While there are many different systems of counting, two main systems are used in the United States today; the American system and the Eastman system.
The American system uses 1 & 2 & for eighth notes, 1 e & a for sixteenth notes. Triplets and compound meter is addressed in two different ways (mainly depending on who you ask. The “official” system uses 1 & a for the triplet as well as compound meter but many who use the American system approach triplets as 1 trip-let and compound meter as 123 456 or 1& 2& 3& 4& 5& 6&. The Eastman system, while similar, has a few variants. The Eastman system uses 1 te 2 te for eighth notes, 1 ti te ta for sixteenth notes, 1 la li for the triplet and compound meter, and 1 te la te li ta for sixteenth notes in compound meter.
While both systems have their own merits, I find that using a combination of the two works best for my students. I have found that using the American system of 1& 2&, 1 e& a, for simple meter, the modified American system of 123 456 for compound meter, and the Eastman system of 1 la li for triplets, helps my students develop a solid foundation in rhythmic counting.
If you are working with private students who also regularly participate in a band or orchestra program, it is best to use the same system their organization uses to avoid confusion.
Teaching Rhythm With Words
For very young students or students who struggle to master traditional counting methods, using words to teach rhythm is an option.
Years ago, someone gave me a copy of a rhythm counting exercise called The Pie Game. My copy is a copy of a copy of a copy and I have looked everywhere to try to find the original source. It was put out by The Band Shed (which I don’t believe exists any longer) and the composer is “Berryman.”
I believe it can be traced back to a book by Hazel Cobb called Rhythm with Rhyme and Reason: Counting Made Easy As Pie. Unfortunately that book is also out of print and I haven’t been able to track down a copy.
The Pie Game uses “Pie” words to count rhythm and since I can’t find the original source anywhere, I will list them for you.
Teaching rhythm to beginners
When teaching beginners, it is important to consider what instrument family they are studying when deciding how to approach the introduction of different rhythms.
Wind players often begin with the whole note and move through the half note, quarter note, eighth note, and sixteenth note. Starting with the whole note allows the student to learn to continuously blow steady air through the instrument and is serves as their first introduction to long tones.
String players on the other hand often begin with quarter notes and move to eighth notes before addressing half notes and whole notes. Quarter notes and eighth notes are much easier to master on string instruments since they use a short bow stroke in the middle of the bow while whole notes are more difficult to master since they require a greater length and steady pressure of the bow.
Introducing the concept of rhythm
The first step in the introduction of rhythm is breaking down the value of each type of note. This concept is often introduced in 4/4 since common time is often the first meter introduced in musical instruction (whole note equals 4 beats, half note equals 2 beats, quarter note equals 1 beat, etc.) It is important to ensure that the student completely understands this concept before moving forward and the note pyramid provides an excellent visual representation. The note pyramid provides students a simple key to understanding the concept of note value.
Once the student understands the concept of note value, it is time to move on to other benchmarks that help form a solid rhythmic foundation.
Learning to feel the beat
First, the student must learn to keep a steady beat so begin with having the student bring in a recording of their favorite song. Starting with music the student enjoys is paramount in any musical development. If the student enjoys music, they will practice, if they don’t enjoy music, they won’t.
Play the song the student brought in in their lesson and have the student attempt to nod their head to the beat. Most students will be able to do this without any issues but some may struggle. If the student struggles with nodding their head to the beat, nod along with them to provide a visual that they can mimic.
Next, have the student tap their foot while nodding their head. Once they have mastered this skill, have them clap the beat as well. Nodding, tapping, and clapping will get their entire body involved in developing a strong sense of pulse. Depending on the age of the student, this could take up the entire lesson or if they master the concept quickly, move on to playing the instrument.
Adding in the instrument
Set a metronome to quarter note equals 60, have the student select their favorite note and practice playing quarter notes with the metronome. Make sure the student is tapping their foot as they play.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of introducing the metronome from day one. Learning to play with a metronome early on ensures the development of a solid sense of pulse which will lay the groundwork for a solid rhythmic foundation.
Once they have mastered playing quarter notes with the metronome, move on to eighth notes. It is important to pay careful attention to the student’s foot when moving on to eighth notes. Make sure the student is still tapping with the metronome and note double tapping the eighth notes they are playing. This is a bad habit that is frequently developed by young musicians and is easily avoidable if addressed early on.
Next, move on to changing notes with the metronome. Start with the first five notes a student learns and have them play ascending and descending quarter notes along with the metronome (see example). After the student has mastered staying with the metronome, move on reading rhythmic notation.
Begin with the four basic rhythmic units of whole note, half note, quarter note, and eighth notes. Start without the instrument, focusing only on rhythmic development. Using rhythm flashcards, have the student clap and count a variety of different rhythmic combinations. Give the student a set of flashcards to use for home practice or have them print and make their own!
After the student is proficient in counting and clapping the rhythms in a variety of combinations, have them play the rhythms on their instrument. Make sure that the student is still using a metronome and tapping their foot while playing.
Ear Training: Teaching Rhythmic Dictation
The next step in rhythmic development is ear training. Start with two rhythms selected from the flashcards. Give the student the two cards, play the rhythm, and have the student put the cards in the correct order. When the student is accurately getting the rhythms every time, increase to three flashcards, then four, etc.
Once the student has become proficient in placing the cards in the correct order, take the flashcards away and have them notate the rhythms. Start back at the beginning with only two rhythms and move up as the student masters rhythmic dictation.
Understanding Time Signatures
Most beginning students learn to count in common time first. This makes sense as it is the most common meter for music to be written in (hence the name). Sticking to common time however, can slow the student’s musical development. It is important to expose students to a wide variety of meters early on. Once a student has mastered the concept of common time, move through the other simple meters (2/4 and 3/4). After a solid foundation in simple meter is mastered, move into cut time and compound meter.
Students should master a few basic rhythms in each meter before moving to the next.
Teaching beat subdivision
Most music students (especially if they are in band) have heard the word subdivision or the phrase “subdivide the beat,” but a rare few of them actually know what it means.
The easiest way to help a student understand the concept of subdivision is to use something they are familiar with…an apple.
You have one whole apple just like a quarter note is one whole beat. If you cut that apple in half, you have two halves of an apple. While the apple is divided, it is still one whole apple. Now, quarter the apple. Four quarters of an apple are still one whole apple even though it is divided into 4 pieces and two quarters of an apple are equal to half and apple.
Now, transition the concept of the apple to notes. How many eighth notes are in each quarter note?
Write out four quarter notes and have the student put eighth notes above it. Next, have the student write in the eighth note counts. Finally, have the student play quarter notes while a metronome is set to eighth notes.
How to solve basic rhythmic problems
Difficulty feeling the beat
Play several different styles of music for the student and have them practice clapping the beat to the music. Clap along with them to help them find the beat if they are struggling. Next, pick a note that works well with the music (I find a concert F almost always works) and have the student play quarter notes along with the music.
If younger students are still struggling, have them put their foot on top of yours (as long as both of you are comfortable with it) and tap for them. This will help them get comfortable tapping their foot while playing.
Rushing or dragging
Rushing and dragging are common issues with young students…and sometimes even older students. If a student is dragging, try slowing down the tempo. In many cases, students drag because they simply can’t play the music that fast yet.
If the student is rushing, remove the instrument from the picture completely, and have the student count and clap the rhythm. Simply removing one element, in this case the notes, will help the student to focus on the rhythmic aspect of the music. Adopt the “If you can say it, you can play it” mentality. Once the student can successfully clap and count the rhythm, add the instrument back in.
If a student is struggling with the concept of syncopation, first have them subdivide the beat. Review subdivision and then have the student write out the subdivided counts above the syncopated rhythm. Then have them clap and count the rhythm while the metronome is set to the subdivided beat (usually either eighth or sixteenth notes).
Once the student is able to successfully clap and count the syncopated rhythm, reintroduce the instrument and have them play the rhythm but break it down into the subdivided beat.
Next, have them play the rhythm as written while the metronome is still subdividing the beat for them. Finally, switch the metronome back to quarter notes and have them play the rhythm while subdividing in their head.
Rhythm is one of the fundamental building blocks of every student’s musical development. It is important for a student to develop a strong sense of rhythm early on in their musical training. While teaching rhythm to beginners can be challenging, it can also be made simple if you follow this step by step method.
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