Rhythm & Meter

Difficult to Teach?

Authors Note: This Article was written as part of an extended study in music education methodology, during my Masters of Music degree in 1995. Consequently its style is very academic in nature – unlike many of my other articles!

This seminar paper will not attempt to prove the best way of teaching rhythm, as I personally have witnessed many differing methods, all of which work very well. What I will attempt to do is to explore the best aspects of all of the systems that are commonly used.

The use of Mnemonic devices (such as syllabic devices used by Kodaly and Dalcrose, as well as applying words to rhythms, such as used in Orff) is useful in teaching rhythm, but how useful? Should we teach the rhythm as sound first, or present it in a visual form with the sounds?

There has been much research into efficient rhythm instruction over the years published in journals such as The Journal of Research in Music Education, and the findings of the studies often give interesting results, and not always the results that we might expect.

The issue of teaching rhythm is further complicated by the fact that there are two regularly used systems of rhythm names. Both the traditional European system (semibreve, crotchet, minim, quaver), which originates from the Latin, and the fractional system (half note, quarter, eighth etc) are regularly used in Australian schools. In this paper I will refer to them as the European or the American time names.

What is rhythm?

Let us begin by exploring the concept of rhythm. The New Grove Dictionary defines rhythm as “The subdivision of a span of time into perceptible sections; the grouping of musical sounds, principally by means of duration and stress.”

There are three characteristics of a single note: 1) Pitch, 2) Intensity and 3) Duration. However one note on its own cannot form a rhythm. Rhythm occurs when we have a number of musical sounds that may have variances in their duration and intensity.

In western music, the time allowed for a piece of music to occur in is divided into regular portions. This first division of time is termed the ‘beat’. These groups can then be further subdivided, into melodic fragments, which are superimposed over the beat. However we have an important, often ignored aspect of rhythm, and that is meter.

Edwin Gordon (1971) provides one of the best definitions of rhythm in his book “The Psychology of music teaching” Gordon divides his definition of rhythm into three basic elements. They are 1) tempo beats, 2) meter beats and 3) melodic rhythm. Tempo Beats provide the foundation, the steady beat that makes us able to play melodic patterns over the top.

A Steady tempo beat is vitally important for students to be able to perceive rhythm. This concept is usually termed “The Beat” of the music by teachers.

Human speech, poetry and music moves in patterns of twos and threes. Therefore fundamental to our concept of rhythm is the idea of Meter beats – ie the division of the tempo beat into two or three.

Nearly every time signature used in modern music is divided into groups of two or three. There are less common mixed (such as 5/8 and 7/8) and uncommon meters, but these are rarely found in school situations.

Melodic rhythm is the pattern that is superimposed over the top of the tempo beat and the Meter beat which forms the musical pattern which corresponds to the rhythm of the text or melody.

Meter beats and tempo beats are fundamental to melodic rhythm, and melodic rhythm is fundamental to the tonal aspects of music. Without rhythm, melody would be difficult to organise and therefore to difficult to perceive and conceptualise.

Cooper and Meyer (1960), also recognise these three aspect of rhythms but define them as 1. Pulse, 2. Meter, and 3. Rhythm. Creston (1964) considers rhythm in terms of the organisation of duration in organised movement, and therefore identifies four basic aspects of rhythm (1) Meter, (2) Pace, (3) Accent and (4) Pattern.

Creston’s terms of “pace” and “meter”, are similar to Gordon’s concepts of tempo beat and meter beat. “Pattern” refers to the subdividing of a pulse into smaller sections. Thus creating rhythm, while he sees “Accent” as playing an important role in shaping the rhythm.

Creston considers Accents to be part of the underlying rhythm of the music, and not an extra embellishment of the melody. He goes on to recognise eight types of accent: dynamic, agogic, metric, harmonic, weight, pitch, pattern and embellished. A dynamic accent emphasises a beat by means of intensity, ie it is simply louder than others. An agogic accent emphasises by means of duration, ie the tone is longer than those proceeding or following it. A metric accent reflect the particular grouping of beats, and often is a dynamic accent, ie an accent place on the beat. A harmonic accent emphasises a beat by use of dissonance or harmonic change on the beat. A weight accent expresses emphasis through change in texture. A pitch accent denotes emphasis on the highest or lowest tone of a group, and embellished accents emphasise a beat through the use of melodic embellishments such as mordents or trills etc.

It is true that accents really do affect our perception of meter. The metric accent is perhaps the most important, as it helps musicians relate to time signatures and their effective meanings, and gives us the skills to be able to superimpose complex rhythms over the top. It is important to understand the normal structure of natural accents occurring in a bar, especially if we wish to understand syncopation. The relationship of strong to weak beats is often ignored by teachers, and thus leads to a less full understanding of the music.

Radocy and Boyle (1979) refer to the beat as implied by the time signature as the Metrical Beat and the beat felt in response to music as the True Beat.

It is vital that a teacher have an excellent grasp on these concepts for them to be able to communicate them effectively with their students.

Note versus Rote – which comes first?

Central to the issue of teaching rhythm is whether to teach playing the rhythm first, or to teach playing the rhythm at the same time as playing. Central to the teaching strategies of Orff, Kodaly and Suzuki is that children understand rhythm aurally first, and therefore can deal with the reading later. However research by Shehan (1987) found that students learned a rhythmic phrase more efficiently when taught with both aural and visual aids, than when taught with aural aids and mnemonics alone.

“While aural training may be vital in developing auditory and musical sensitivity, music reading skills are learned most efficiently through a multi-faceted approach that includes the rhythm sound, its associated mnemonics, and the notational symbols.

The research of Shehan however, involved experiments of rhythm alone, and did not consider the difficulty of teaching rhythm notation at the same time as pitch notation.

The teaching methodologies of Kodaly, Orff and Suzuki all rely on teaching rhythm first as sound, before any notation is introduced. In the Kodaly Context (1981) Lois Choksy says “The teaching order is always sound to sight, concrete to abstract”. She goes on to recommend that teaching of rhythm concepts should be achieved through mimicry, ie having the students copy the rhythm clapped or tapped by the teacher. This technique is very useful for teaching beginners, but it loses its effectiveness as children get older, and are faced with more complex rhythms to read and interpret. If they need the band director to clap or tap every rhythm first, then the band will be severely impeded in its progress.

Kodaly students later learn to speak the rhythms using an altered version of French time names, (eg TA and TI TI) and when they are familiar with them, they learn to associate them with the visual patterns by way of games with flash cards etc.

The teaching methods of Orff involve using speech patterns to introduce rhythm. Carl Orff in his introduction to Music for children states:

“Children should always play from memory – only this will guarantee a maximum of freedom – but notation should not be disregarded; on the contrary, it should be introduced right from the beginning (together with speech patterns for which rhythmical notation is sufficient) so that the child may jot down any rhythmical or melodic idea that occurs to him”

It is interesting that the Orff strategy places the emphasis on freedom of expression, but also advocates an understanding of the notational systems. Orff style speech patterns are an excellent rhythmical tool for teaching rhythm, and fundamental to the system is that when students see a particular rhythmic pattern, then they associate it with the words they have been taught, and thus are able to audiate the sound of the rhythm effectively.

The teaching strategy of Suzuki, is to generally teach playing with no written notation at all, and then to introduce actual pitch and rhythm notation at the same time. Rhythm variation is taught in the very first piece of the Suzuki literature: “Twinkle, Twinkle Variations” Some teachers of the Suzuki method use Orff style vocalisations to help students understand the rhythms, and thus perform them proficiently. Students of the Suzuki method really learn the four rhythm patterns of “twinkle twinkle” extremely well, and this does help them recognise these patterns when they occur in other pieces, however the process does not go far enough, with the book returning to very basic rhythmic contexts after the first tune.

The teaching of rhythm is given the most important emphasis in Dalcrose Eurhythmics. In the Dalcrose methodology, children are taught to internalise rhythm through movement. Movement to music begins at a very early age, generally with no musical notation, and children are taught to equate rhythms with specific movements. ie ?= Skipping. Through Uninhibited movement to the beat of the music children learn to internalise movements to these rhythms, and later, when the visual element rhythmical cell is shown to them, they can equate it to its movement, and therefore its sound. Metrical beats are also included, ie the relationship of strong and weak beats in different time signatures. Word phrases are also used, as they develop longer phrases, as in the Orff system.

Value of Audiation and rhythmic vocalisation

There seems to be general agreement between music educators that understanding the mathematical-fractional system of time names (half note, quarter note, eighth note etc) is not sufficient for students to be able to read and perform rhythms effectively, nor is simple memory of the names of notes and their lengths enough to provide good rhythm reading. (Bebau 1982; Brown, 1974; Choksy, 1981;Colley, 1987; Dee Merrion, 1986; Gordon, 1971; Hicks, 1980.)

Audiation is defined as the hearing of sounds that are not physically present through recall, prediction and conception (Gordon). This concept is used in almost every teaching methodology. Orff students learn to Audiate by seeing a rhythm pattern and equating it with a word phrase, saying the word phrase, and then they are able to play the rhythm. Kodaly students would recognise a rhythmic phrase with its time name (ie Ti ka Ti ka for a group of four semiquavers). Dalcrose students will be able to associate a visual patten with a movement, and thus be able to feel the sound of the rhythm.

A Study by Muriel J. Bebeau (1982)# found significant improvement when students were taught using a speech-cue method over traditional rhythm understanding methods. Bebeu’s Study involved two classes of third grade students, one taught with traditional note names and mathematical functions of length of notes, and one taught with a speech cue method which was a combination of Kodaly rhythm names and Orff techniques. The study showed a significant variance with the results showing that the speech cue method students has learned more than the traditional students.

The main difference in the methods was that the traditional group counted the beat, and were expected to clap the rhythm, while the speech cue group Audiated the rhythms with the Kodaly time names. I feel that this Audiation was the main difference between the two groups.

Commonly used techniques for teaching rhythm

Jackson (1963) summarises devices and techniques commonly used in the teaching of rhythm training. They are (1) Counting Aloud (2) Tapping the underlying beat (3) The metronome (4) Tapping or clapping the phrase rhythm, (5) Ensemble experience (6) Conducting and (7) Use of Words (mnemonics).

Necessary to be added to this list are the imitation techniques of Kodaly, and the movement strategy of Dalcrose Eurhythmics.

1. Counting Aloud

The value of counting aloud cannot be underestimated when teaching rhythm reading. In his very commonly used book for teaching drummers to read music: Progressive steps to Syncopation Ted Reed gives very few instructions to the student, but he does insist on counting aloud. I have taught many students to read using this book, and I have always found that counting aloud, while sometimes very difficult, is one of the most successful techniques for teaching rhythm.

2. Tapping the Underlying beat

There is differing opinions as to whether tapping the foot as a method of staying in time is a good thing. Many teachers object to it in ensemble situations on the basis that it spoils the aesthetics and the visual appearance of the ensemble, however Jackson (1963) prefers foot tapping over counting for two reasons (1) it involves more extensive muscular action, and (2) There is less emphasis on the arithmetic. Research by Boyle (1970) found that foot tapping significantly improved the rhythm reading ability of high school band students. Tapping the foot gives the student an excellent concept of the True Beat, ie. the whole beat, but if the student encounters a melodic rhythm that he or she finds difficult, their motor co-ordination is unlikely to be good enough to retain a good

sense of the Beat.

3. Using The Metronome

I feel that the metronome is an indispensable tool in the teaching of instrumental music. In the classroom situation the metronome has limited uses because variations in tempo are impossible, and it often needs to be too loud in order for it to be heard. Many do not advocate the use of the metronome because it’s use within varying tempi is impractical, and some teachers feel that it inhibits students sense of musicality and phrasing. Radocy and Boyle (1979) feel that the metronomes usefulness is limited because it is an entirely external criterion. Personally I feel that the metronome should always be used by the instrumental student during personal practice, because they then learn to superimpose the melodic rhythm of the phrase they are playing over the true beat, without allowing the true beat to vary in the slightest.

4. Clapping or tapping the phrase rhythm

Clapping (or tapping) phrases is a technique often used by band directors when learning new pieces. This technique is a good one, but it should not be used in isolation. There needs to be activities used in conjuction, such as tapping the foot while clapping, or singing the rhythm while clapping the beat.

5. Ensemble Experience

Ensemble experience is very important in developing a good sense of rhythm, especially with a good conductor. Radocy and Boyle (1972) believe that ensemble experience makes students conform to the underlying beat, however Revelli (1955) maintains that ensemble has been a staff for students to lean upon, and that their ability to read suffers from the lack of a systematic procedure for analysing the various rhythm patterns.

6. Conducting

Conducting is an excellent way of learning about rhythm and meter, and this technique is often used in Dalcrose Eurhythmics. Through learning conducting, students gain an excellent understanding of the strong and weak beats of a bar, and also a good sense of the true beat.

7. Use of Words and Mnemonics

The use of words (such as in the Orff based approach) and mnemonics (such as used by Kodaly) have shown to be very useful in the study of rhythm. Next we will examine the merits of each of the various systems. Research by Palmer (1976), Siemens (1969) and Bebau (1982) clearly show that Mnemonics are at least as effective as traditional methods.

Table 1. Mnemonics used by various methods:

table of rhythm names

Which Mnemonic System to use?

Table 1 Shows several of the vocalisations used by teachers throughout the world. It is always confusing for students who encounter several different systems in their music education. It is most important that whatever method is chosen, that it be kept as consistent as possible, so that students can immediately recognise a pattern when reading music, and be able to instantly audiate it, and therefore play it correctly.

There has been several research projects completed on the effectiveness of each of the methods.

Siemens (1969) compared the Orff Phrase based method to a traditional approach in a study involving 458 fifth grade students. She found that the Orff approach generated more student interest but did not improve music achievement to a greater extent than the traditional method.

Palmer (1976) compared the effectiveness of the Kodaly syllables with Gordon’s earlier system, where numbers were used to identify meter beats. Both of the treatment groups (that had undergone a period of lessons between pre-tests and post-tests) scored significantly higher than the control group (with no lessons) on standardised achievement tests (written and practical). Palmer also found that the Gordon approach produced a significantly greater gain in performance than the Kodaly approach.

Bernadette Colley (1987), in a study involving 160 second and third grade students, compared the Kodaly approach, the latter Gordon method (Du De etc), and a word method. Her results showed a increase in understanding with all three groups, as compared to the control group. No significant difference existed between the Word and Gordon methods for improving recognition skills, however both were found to be significantly better than the Kodaly method. The Kodaly Subjects did not make seem to make any gain in recognition ability as compared to the control group. In the performance part of the tests the word group improved significantly better than both the Gordon and Kodaly subjects. Colley also mentioned that the word group maintained their enthusiasm throughout the 11 week course, while the Kodaly groups interest had fallen away by week 4, and the Gordon groups had become less enthused by week 6.

The Kodaly system has emerged to be the poorest from the studies of both Palmer and Gordon. Personally I dont feel that this is significant, as much depends on the teacher, and the teachers enthusiasm and belief in the system that he or she is using. Much of the Kodaly methodology relies on working over a longer period of time, as well as working in combination with melody and games.

Much more research needs to be done into this area, as these studies don’t even go part of the way to answering the questions as to which method is most effective. Some of the questions that need to be addressed are:

  • How do we deal with rests? If a syllabic system is used, how well do students deal with using silence syllables like “Sh” and “Za”?
  • If rhythm reading is postponed until children have mastered the rhythmic cells aurally, how well will students adapt to reading the rhythms.
  • How well do the students who have learned with words or syllables understand time signatures, compared to students using the number system.
  • How well do students who have learned with syllabic systems meet the challenges of more complex pieces that require counting in the future (such as changing or asymmetric time signatures)
  • Most of the teachers who advocate the numeric system believe that it is important to have a concept of the position in the bar, which improves students conception of meter as well as beat.

As part of my research for this paper, I looked at the method used by as many tutor books as possible. Most of the instrumental tutors such as A Tune a Day (Chappel), Learn to play the……(Alfred), Simplicity Tutors (Hawkes), Rubank series, Progressive series (Alfred) and Band methods such as Essential Elements, Standard of Excellence and Yamaha Band Student, all use the numeric system. Some of the tutors had no system of counting advocated at all ( Bow Craft string tutors, Kalmus vocal tutors).

Personally I have taught using word systems, Kodaly syllables, and the numeric method. I have found that the numeric system is more difficult to teach than any word or syballic methods, but on the whole it produces better results over the longer term.

European vs American Time names

I feel that it is useful for students to be familiar with both sets of terms. The American system relies on the student understanding that the name represents a fraction of a common time bar. This system also makes modern time signatures easier to comprehend. There are however two problems with this. Firstly, young children (up to 10 years of age) do not understand fractional mathematics well enough to cope with this system, and therefore the names become confusing, and secondly the names become confused when we have other time signatures.

The European system involves a series of names which have no meaning in themselves, which make them difficult to remember, but once the memory has been established, it is likely to be retained.

Most sensible order of teaching rhythmic concepts

I feel that this is probably the most neglected area of teaching rhythm. Students generally learn rhythmic concepts as they are needed for the pieces that they are playing, rather than the order that best suits their comprehension of them.

Many of the tutors I have examined begin with crotchets and or minims. Several of the wind instrument books begin with semibreves, and students are expected to count to four while playing, then count a four beat rest (Rubank, Alfred). I feel that this is definitely not the best way to go, as students are expected to concentrate on firstly hitting the right note, breathing correctly, producing a good tone, and then counting steadily. It is no wonder that students who learn with this method have poor rhythm skills. Through talking to wind instrument teachers, I have found that most do not use this system anyway, and first concentrate on long tones without counting at all, and then they move on to crotchets and minims.

This is the concept behind the “Rhythm guide for teachers” which I have included at the end of this paper. It does not attempt to suggest which counting system to use, or any other explanations, but it suggests the best order for presenting rhythmical concepts to students.

Understanding Syncopation concepts

Syncopation can cause problems for some students, particularly when placed into a jazz setting, where they have to deal with the syncopated figure, as well as “swinging” the rhythm. The main problem is the lack of understanding as to what syncopation actually is.

Syncopation is moving of the accentuation from a naturally strong beat to a weak beat. The Metrical accent has moved.

The mimim that falls on the second = weak beat, has the stress at its beginning and as it also occupies the time space of the third (ie relatively strong) beat, it shifts the stress from the third (stressed) to the second (originally weak) beat.

It is very important that the total “quantum” of musical energy is maintained, even if the stress and string beats are shifted. Energy which is taken away from one place, must not be lost – it must appear in another (appropriate) place.

If students are presented with such simple syncopations very early in their musical learning, then more complex patterns will become easier, through rhythmic augmentation and diminution.

Efficient Notation for good rhythmical understanding

Poor notation is often the cause of poor rhythm reading. Specifically:

Notes being placed too close to bar lines:

rhythm article

Incorrect spacing of notes:

rhythm article

Bruce Berr (1990) Also points out that consistency between bars is also very important. If the same figure appears more squashed up at one point than another, the student may tend to rush.

Summary and Conclusions

In conclusion, if teachers keep in mind the following points, good rhythm performance and reading will follow:

  • Be careful not to ignore any aspect of the rhythm : The true beat, the metrical beat and the melodic rhythm
  • Remember the concept of strong and weak beats when discussing time signatures
  • Keep all of the tools for teaching rhythm in mind, and be careful not to overuse any of them: ie Counting Aloud, Tapping the true beat, Using a metronome, Tapping or Clapping the melodic rhythm, Movement to music, Conducting and the use of Mnemonics.
  • Use a consistent system of terms. Vital to the recognition process is the ability to instantly recognize a figure, as something familiar, to be able to audiate it.


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Please feel free to link to or credit this article in your research or scholarly paper. Copyright 1995 Kevin Tuck

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Another idea for teaching rhythm is to try some educational music games focusing on rhythm. Games like this are available all over the internet and from the Fun Music Company.