Everything has rhythm. Everything dances. -Maya Angelou

This article written by, Amy Fatek

While rhythm is as basic as a simple heartbeat, teaching students how to use rhythmic notation and literacy is a challenge.  As a junior high band director I am constantly looking for ways to differentiate my instruction so that rhythm is understood and applicable by my students to different styles and genres of music.  I have determined that there are three steps to follow in helping our students find success in reading and applying rhythms.  We must know our students’ previous knowledge base and collaborate with colleagues to create a cohesive curriculum.  We must present a variety of different systems for practice and implement these practices in to our daily rehearsal routine.

Knowing our students means understanding what objectives they are familiar with and what things need reinforcing.  In the article, “Six Key Principals for Music Assessment”, the authors Connie Hale and Susan Green state, “Before teaching a skill or concept, a teacher needs to examine prerequisite knowledge needed for success”.  (Pg. 28)  Ideally a curriculum would be designed so that when the students are old enough to join band they have already worked on he fundamentals of music and have a solid foundation to start from. In creating a curriculum, it is very important that the band director communicates with the general music teacher.  This allows the general music teacher to share what objectives they have emphasized.   All to often we have tunnel vision in our own worlds, and do not see the big picture.  It is this big picture that should drive curriculum planning.  Teachers should look to their standards for guidance and then collaborate and develop a district vision of what the timeline for their students’ development should look like.

Teachers often present systems for counting rhythms that make sense to them.  It is understandable then, that students may not always see things the same way.  It is important that we introduce many different systems of counting.  A teacher might use one system while occasionally throwing in an example from another.  When students, “just don’t get it”, we have to try a different approach.  In the study, “The Effects of Learning Procedure, Tempo, and Performance Condition on Transfer of Rhythm Skills in Instrumental Music”, written by Michael A. Pierce, the study examined sixth, seventh and eighth grade band students ability to transfer previously learned rhythmic skills to a new piece.  This study used four different rhythmic learning strategies; clapping, counting, sizzling, and clapping and counting rhythm.  Pierce concluded that there was not a significant difference between systems.  Significance was found however, in the tempo variation between were the students originally learned the passage and the tempo they played during testing.  Tempo was the variable that led student to have a hard time transferring their knowledge.  I think this is an important thing for teachers to note.

Another method of teaching rhythm would be using words or syllables to describe rhythm. Bernadette Colley, the researcher who wrote the study, “A Comparison of Syllabic Methods for Improving Rhythm Literacy”, concluded that, “a syllabic system that differentiated between duple and triple subdivisions of the beat improved recognition skills to a greater degree than one that did not.  Furthermore, a system in which specific words were assigned to intact rhythm patterns improved performance and notation skills to a greater degree than did the two systems that used monosyllables”. (Pg. 221)  Here are the three treatments used with the experimental groups from Colley’s study:

From Colley’s study,  A Comparison of Syllabic Methods for Improving Rhythm Literacy. (Pg. 226)

It was discovered that:

“Subjects in the word group conceptualized the patterns as intact units because the words themselves were in tact units, regardless of their rhythmic connotation.  For example, it would have been unnatural to the children to pause between the syllables of the word Washington.  In contrast, Many Kodaly and Gordon subjects would hesitate between the individual syllables in TiTiTi or DuDaDi.  In addition, the accented first syllable of all the words or phrases gave word subjects a sense of a continuing metric accent.  Each measure could read like a sentence of sorts, which, like any sentence, had a rhythmic flow from one word to the next”.  (Pg.233)

I found this study to be very interesting.  I currently use more of a Kodaly approach.  Having seen this research, I am interested in learning more about the word method.  There are some very basic rhythms in which Ta and TiTi work well for my students, but for the more complex rhythms it definitely makes since to use multiple ways of building a “musical sentence”.

Finally, putting these ideas into a daily routine makes using these strategies second nature for students.  I do a rhythmic dictation or counting exercise everyday as a part of the warm-up.  By using multiple strategies as described within, more students should be able to make connections between notation and the sounds they should make.  By knowing our students needs and collaborating with colleagues we set students on a path of understanding and rhythmic literacy.  By using many different approaches to teaching rhythm we give students many different opportunities to have their “Ah-Ha Moment”.  Perfect and systematic practice makes perfect and by making these strategies a part of our daily practice and rehearsal routine we give our students the tools for success.


Colley, B.. (1985). A Comparison of Syllabic Methods for Improving Rhythm Literacy (Master’s Thesis).  Journal of Research in Music Education.  (Volume 4, Pages 221-235)

Hale, C.L., Green, S.K. (2009).  Six Key Principals for Music Assessment.  Journal of Music Education

Pierce, M.A., (1992),  The effects of Learning Procedure, Tempo, and Performance Condition on Transfer of Rhythm Skills in Instrumental Music.  (Volume 40, Pages 295-315)


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie K.
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 04:34:50

    I, too, am always looking for ways to help my students better understand rhythm. I have tried many different methods in an attempt to reach all learners and teach to all learning styles. On any given day, you might hear me count a rhythm, clap a rhythm, count and clap a rhythm, “ta” or “ti” a rhythm, or just make something up on the spot. The idea or concept of rhythm might seem like a simple one, but it is not so easy to teach. I do not have any one “set in stone” method. Rather, I just try to do what seems to work best for my students on a particular day. I try many different things until I see that it has “clicked.” My ultimate goal with rhythm is for my students to be able to look at a piece of music and count it and play it correctly without my assistance. I want to help them develop rhythmic skills they can apply to any piece of music they choose to read and play.

    I believe that variety is important. Students do not all learn the same way, and teachers should not all teach the same way. If students are struggling with one method of counting rhythms, then a good solution is to try something different. Amy mentioned several methods for counting rhythms such as clapping, counting, and using words or syllables. I, personally, am a fan of using words to help students understand rhythms, and I think my students like it, too. I believe that words help prevent students from taking unnecessary and incorrect pauses while reading and counting music. With clapping and syllables, I have found that students, without meaning to, add rests that are not written in the music. Yet, for some reason, this problem seems to go away when using words for counting rhythms.

    With my younger band students (4th and 5th grades), I try to find ways to make band more fun while still helping them learn and become better musicians. I like to use fruit words to help my younger students count rhythms. I picked fruit because you have many different options making it more likely that you will find words for the rhythms you are teaching.
    Here are some examples:
    • Half Note = Pear (Pe-ar)/Grape (Gra-ape)
    • Quarter Note = Plum/Peach
    • 2 Eighth Notes = Apple/Kiwi
    • 1 Eighth, 2 Sixteenth = Strawberry/Pineapple/Blueberry
    • 2 Sixteenth, 1 Eighth = Cantaloupe/Honey Dew
    • 4 Sixteenth Notes = Watermelon
    • Triplets = Bananas/Papaya

    You are not limited to fruit, either. In the example Amy provided, states were used. Other possible options for using words include sports or animals.
    Here are just a few sports examples:
    • Half Note = Go-olf
    • Quarter Note = Track
    • 2 Eighth Notes = Tennis/Softball/Baseball
    • 2 Sixteenth, 1 Eighth = Basketball

    Regardless of the method you currently use or have tried in the past, I would just remind you “variety is the spice of life.” If you offer many different “choices,” you are giving your students more chances to find and make the connections that work best for them.


  2. patti b.
    Dec 05, 2011 @ 04:48:42

    I like both Amy’s post and Stephanie’s additions to it. Thank you for these great comments. Right now, differentiating instruction is a focus in my school district. I am expected to differentiate everything I teach. You both address the importance of this as well. Amy also touched on colloboration between general music teachers and band directors so that we are on the “same page.” This is also being stressed in one of my school buildings. The reading and math teachers all want to “speak the same language” at every grade level. This consistency is important and will be less confusing for students. I often ask my fifth graders what the band director wants them to say for half notes, whole notes, etc. I, like both of you, have branched out from Kodaly to using real words. I use Kodaly too because I have students who move in and out of our school. When students are afforded different options to meet the same goal (in this case, counting and playing rhythms), they will indeed have that “ah ha moment.” They also are taking responsibility for their own learning, and they become aware of how they learn the best (metacognition).

    I really like Stephanie’s fruit theme for all the notes. I highly recommend a book from Macie Publishing called “Rhythm Pie” which uses words and could go hand in hand with what Stephanie is teaching.

    I also enjoy letting the students come up with their own “theme” and label each kind of note around their theme. They can perform rhythms for the entire class, and their classmates get to guess what their category was.


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