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  • Writer's pictureJulia Pinckney Jones

It's All About The Beat!

(If) I Got Rhythm, (then) I Got Music!

If there's one thing that we at Desert Home Music seem to pay more attention to than any other, it's rhythm. Every teacher has their own priorities, but I've noticed that many students that come to us from other schools and teachers seem to be lagging in this regard. The student will play all (or mostly all) the right notes, but they don't play them with a solid sense of where the "beat" is, and this makes their music sound, well, not like music!

You can have music without a melody, without words, without harmony; without many of the things that we generally associate with music... but without rhythm and a beat, it's really just noise. Every type of music has some sense of rhythm. We humans can't really avoid it. Even Gregorian Chants (which aren't, when written down, notated with rhythm) tend to follow the natural rhythms of speech. (In whatever language the chant is written!)

Our existence depends on rhythms. The steady rhythm of our heartbeats, our breathing, our circadian rhythms of sleeping and waking define us (not to mention keep us alive!), so when we, as humans, create art (especially art that includes sound, like poetry and music) we can't help but reflect those natural rhythms in our work!

So how do we instill a sense of rhythm in our students' playing?

Rhythm vs Beat

First of all, we need to define our terms. How do rhythm and beat differ? There's a great article here, (aimed mainly at parents with minimal musical knowledge trying to teach music to their children) but the general principle is this:

The beat is the steady pulse underlying the music.

(It's what you'd "clap along" to.)

The rhythm is the actual sound of the notes and their durations. (What you'd "sing along" to.)

So in this example (drawn from the blog post I linked to above) the "tip-toe, tip toe" spiders would be the "beat" and the stars (under each syllable of the lyrics) would be the rhythm.

Try to read the lyrics of this song without saying them in rhythm. It's difficult, isn't it? Every student would be able to sing the song perfectly in rhythm, and with a solid sense of where the beat is, too.

However, many of those same students, when trying to learn to play the song, would make each note roughly the same duration, slowing down and speeding up depending on how "hard" each phrase was, and if they played "the right notes" (the correct pitches) they (and, strangely, many music teachers) would feel they'd gotten it right, and would be ready to move on.

Why is that and how do we fix it?

When we first learn to play a new song, we usually focus on the pitches we're playing... identifying the letter names of the notes we're playing and then translating them to the instrument. It makes sense to split up the task (learning the song) into smaller pieces, but we need to remember that playing the correct pitches are only part of the learning process.

The problem in focusing on pitches first and ignoring the rhythm "for now" is that once habits are learned, they are fiendishly difficult to "unlearn" and "relearn." A student who first learns the song by playing the "easy" parts faster and the "hard" parts slower, who habitually pauses at barlines, and who plays a half note for the same duration as an eighth note, will have an incredible amount of difficulty and frustration trying to "put the beat and rhythm in later". Their muscle memory of how the song goes will keep drawing them back to their non-rhythmic habit.

So let's turn the learning process upside down. The beat is at the heart of the music ("heart" "beat" - see what I did there?) so let's put it back where it belongs. Start by teaching the beat and the rhythm of the song, so the pitches will be laid on top of the existing, known beat/rhythm.

- Look at the time signature - where is it and what does it mean?

- How many beats are in each measure?

- Do any measures have a different number of beats (incomplete measures)?

- Can you tap/clap/count the rhythm of the song?

- If there are words, can you say the words in rhythm?

Once the beat and rhythm are established and the student is confident with them, they are ready to start layering on the pitches. They will still, likely, have a tendency to speed up the "easy parts" and slow down the "hard parts" but since they learned the rhythm first, we will be able to easily identify what needs to be corrected. "Ok, now that we've got the notes, let's "count it out" the way we did at the beginning and fit the notes into the rhythm."

The kids don't want to count. I make them count.

When someone asks me about my job - what I do, this is often my answer. It's a bit glib, I know, but on a given day, that's probably at least 75% of what I do. Counting out the rhythms (especially while you're playing, and especially when you have to do it out loud) is an added challenge that sometimes feels like punishment. I try to make sure it doesn't feel that way - I explain that it's just part of learning, and that pretty soon it will get easier, and I try to find ways to ingrain the rhythm that are more fun (using words rather than numbers, making rhythm blocks (for which you can find a great template at, marching or dancing to demonstrate the beat - I'm not above looking like a lunatic to get a smile from a student) but when it comes right down to it, there's nothing better or more efficient than counting. And counting "out loud" keeps us honest, if we tend to speed up or slow down, as well as making it clear to the teacher where the mistakes are happening.

So, we make the kids count. And their playing, musicality and (eventually) enjoyment of making music that sounds like music improves. And any other musicians they eventually play with will thank us. Well, no, they won't, because they won't know it was us.

But we'll know. (2,3,4)

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