Developing a Good Sense of Rhythm

Developing a good sense of rhythm is one of the most challenging parts of being a piano teacher.  It’s not something that arrives overnight, and it’s something that must be maintained as the student advances to music with more advanced rhythms and time signatures.  It truly is something that must be developed.

I’d like to suggest that there are three components to having and developing what we so loosely refer to as a “good sense of rhythm”:

  1. A sense of beat. This means the ability to maintain a steady beat/pulse.  This is probably the most common and most basic problem that students encounter when it comes to rhythm issues in their piece.  The inability to maintain a steady beat/pulse is crucial for developing #’s 2 and 3 below.
  2. A sense of rhythm (i.e., note values).  This involves being able to accurately identify and execute the various note values within a variety of tempi.  Beginner students may struggle with placing eighth notes within a quarter note beat, while more advanced students may struggle with syncopated rhythms or playing 2 against 3.  It is nearly impossible to develop a sense of rhythm without first developing a sense of beat (#1 above).
  3. A sense of meter.  This may very well be the most elusive component of the three.  At the most basic level, issues with proper sense of meter will evidence themselves when, for example, a student fails to maintain 3/4 time by extending the third beat so that they are actually in 4/4 time (a common issue among beginners).  At more advanced levels, issues with proper sense of meter will evidence themselves when, for example, a student feels cut time (2/2) as common time (4/4), or feels 4/4 or 3/4 time as more like 1/4 (not uncommon in Bach’s contrapuntal pieces).  Losing sight of the meter is like failing to see (or feel) the big picture.

When student has a rhythmic issue in one of their pieces, it can be really beneficial to further identify which of the three components above may be lacking and causing the issue in this case.  An issue in understanding what a half note means is quite different from an issue with keeping a steady beat, for example!  The teacher would solve these issues quite differently.

On a bit of a tangent — all this talk about rhythm is one of the reasons why I’d love to be able to offer pre-piano / early childhood music group classes someday (once set up a studio in my own home rather than teaching on campus).  Offering these kinds of classes allows  the students a chance at musical development before they may be ready for private lessons with a teacher.  And these classes are a perfect opportunity to begin developing good senses of rhythm!  Developing a sense of beat (#1 above) can be done with activities involving tapping, clapping, or walking the beat while singing and moving.  Soon after, students can begin echoing and creating various rhythms within the steady tempo to begin absorbing how note values (#2 above) work.  And, of course, the teacher will present these rhythm activities within certain meters/time signatures (#3).  Although the students may not yet be at the point where they can understand what a time signature means, they can at least begin absorbing and feeling what these meters sound and feel like.  All these things are great foundations for taking lessons later on!

These kinds of activities are not only for early childhood, though.  They would also work well for monthly group lessons with students ages 5-7 (but probably not any older, depending on the activity) who are already taking private lessons.

There are many ways to develop a good sense of rhythm in students!  The most important thing?  Showing students that rhythm can be fun!  =)

Photo Credit: Denzil~ | CC 2.0

PG
Joy Morin is a piano teacher in Perrysburg, Ohio (United States) who enjoys keeping her teaching fresh with new ideas and resources. ColorInMyPiano.com serves as a journal of her adventures in piano teaching as well as a place to exchange ideas and resources.

Joy has blogged 1106 posts here.

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16 Comments

  1. Loretta
    Posted 14 September 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I agree that starting rhythm training should be as early as possible, and done before private instrument lessons start. Children should be musicians first, and then pianists :)

  2. Posted 21 September 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Joy. I just started a Musikgarten early childhood music program myself and definitely agree with you! I’m going to pass this along to the parents of my students.

  3. Posted 26 September 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Parents frequently ask me, “When should I start my child’s musical training?” I usually respond, “They day they are born….if not sooner!” A great way to instill a sense of beat into even a newborn is to play music frequently and pat their back, leg, hand, etc. to the steady beat of the music. As they grow, this can develop into clapping or marching together, banging on pans (or plastic lids, if you prefer something quieter), and even dancing/doing choreographed movements to children’s songs.

    I, too, would love to offer baby/toddler music/movement classes. I do have preschool classes using the Music for Little Mozarts series. But even these kids could benefit from having already been given a good foundation in beat beforehand. I have the facility to be able to offer that now. I just do not have the time or energy to add it to my list of lessons, classes, and (now) responsibilities as the business owner. So, I am actually in search of the ideal program and an excellent, energetic teacher to lead it.

    • Posted 27 September 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      @Rebecca: That’s exciting that you already have the facility to offer early childhood music classes. It sounds like it would be a great addition to your studios!

      There are a number of different ways to get training/certification in early childhood music…..a few of them are listed at the end of this post. They all sound like great programs to me….I just have to decide which one to pursue for training once I am done with grad school and then I can start offering my own classes. =)

      • Posted 15 January 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

        Finally got a teacher who is going to teach these classes for me. He and I are pretty much designing our own classes. Every program I’ve looked at has it’s weaknesses. So, for now anyway, we’re going to try making our own program. We may decide, after three months or so, to lean on the hard work that’s already been done by the people who have already developed curriculum.

        • Posted 24 January 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

          @Rebecca: That sounds so exciting! I hope your classes are a success. Please keep us updated.

  4. Posted 25 January 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Great post. And isn’t it so amazing how the simple, basic concept of counting out loud seems to reinforce all three? If a student cannot keep the pulse, figure out the rhythm, or understand the meter, they will not be able to count out loud. Places of rhythmic difficulty are invariably where students’ mouths stop moving, and a stopping mouth is always a very glaring mistake that can’t be hidden from oneself (or the teacher). That’s why I’m a counting Nazi with my students.

    Think about it: we teachers can’t “turn it off”. Can you look at a piece of music without instantly hearing (or at least figuring out) the meter, rhythm and pulse? I can’t, nor can any well-trained musician. I find it no less difficult to not understand the rhythm/meter/pulse of a passage I look at than it is for anyone to read the following word but not understand what it actually means: “ELEPHANT”. Those who are well-trained to read can’t help but understand the concept of an elephant when they see the written representation of it. You can’t turn it off. It’s a skill, and we need to develop the similar skill in students when it comes to “feeling” (not just understanding) rhythm, meter and pulse. It’s the habit of making sure this stuff even precedes the learning of notes themselves. That’s why I don’t think it’s going too far to have students *be able to* count all pieces out loud. Eventually they don’t need to actually practice counting out loud anymore because the skill has been so internalized; but they are still able to count out loud if demanded by the teacher.

    One of the best mid beginning pieces I’ve found to help students experience for themselves the difference between pulse and meter is L. Mozart’s Burlesque (originally A major but Music for Millions vol. 17 has it transposed to G major). If a student truly counts this piece out loud (starting on 2, not on1 as it so compels us to do), the piece is a wildly different experience. It’s as if the barlines were shifted by one beat throughout, and the strange 5-measure “middle section” has a really cool hemiola where the hemiola pattern is 2.5 measures long (usually hemiola patterns are shorter, not longer, than a single measure). Students completely miss all this fun, excitement and weirdness if they don’t count out loud. Beyond counting out loud, I even have them accent the first beat of every measure for a week (or until they are comfortable doing so) to really make sure they’re “feeling” the meter (and not just speaking the meter like a robot that doesn’t place any special value on any particular numbers). It’s an exciting eye-opener for students.

    • Posted 27 January 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      @Chad: I admit it: I’m a “counting Nazi” too. And not just for my students – I have found it very helpful to count aloud with Bach preludes, fugues, and dance movements. It’s too easy to feel the meter in all the wrong places when it comes to Bach. It’s challenging, but counting helps me keep things in place.

      Your reference to the Leopold Mozart Burlesque is an interesting one. Sometimes, when trying to explain the reason for pickup notes or the reason why there are different meters in music, I attempt a demonstration by playing Happy Birthday with a shifted meter (i.e., starting on beat one instead of with a pickup). Sometimes, the demonstration works wonderfully; other times, it’s a flop because on some days I can’t seem to get my mind/fingers to play Happy Birthday the wrong way on purpose!! Perhaps the Burlesque is a better option for such a demonstration. =)

      One thing related to counting I picked up at last year’s state music teacher’s convention was from a session given by Martha Hilley: “Always count like a musician: count musically!” I no longer let my students get by with counting in monotone like a robot. I encourage them to be expressive!

      • Posted 25 November 2013 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

        That is really interesting about the Happy Birthday pick-up notes! What a great example! I’m pretty certain I couldn’t play or sing it with the “Hap” on beat 1, but I can guarantee I’ll be thinking about it for a couple of days now… :) Thanks for the example.

  5. Ann (Ewan) Coker
    Posted 26 January 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I not only have the students count out loud often, but we also do some walking and counting to involve the whole body. I like to use a drum to beat out the rythym sometimes.

    • Posted 27 January 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      This is great, Ann! Your reference to the importance of movement is an excellent one. The activities you do with your students reminds me of the Dalcroze Eurhythmics courses I took during my undergrad. I know no better way than by using whole-body movement to truly internalize and understand the elements of beat and rhythm.

  6. Posted 27 January 2011 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Joy, that’s great – never thought of playing HAP-py birth-day TO you… before. While the Burlesque might be (maybe?) a slightly better way, I think yours is far more entertaining. While you might be adding Burlesque to your meter demonstrating repertoire, I think I’m going to add Happy Birthday to mine. :)

    Another one that works would be “MY bonnie LIES over THE ocean…”. Ugh, that took me about 5 attempts to get to where I could feel it that way.

  7. Ricardo
    Posted 12 June 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I’m having such a hard time with the rhythm. Generally…how long does it take to learn? I’m learning the Tabla (indian drums) so they do cycles of beats (4,8,12,16 cycles etc) so it gets hard

    Any tips on how to practice and feeling the beat?

    • Posted 20 June 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Hi Ricardo,

      Every student is different, so I don’t think I could tell you how long it takes to learn rhythm! As my article mentions, feeling the beat is central. Just make sure you are always aware of the beat at all times. If you find yourself not being aware, stop and start over. I would recommend lots of work with a metronome.

      It must be fascinating to learn the Tabla! I only know a little bit about how Indian music from what I learned in World Music courses in college, but I do know that it seems very complex especially when coming from a Western music background! Best wishes with your musical endeavors.

  8. samina yasmin
    Posted 11 June 2014 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    hi joy its been great knowing ur site and gain lots of experience from ur activities.hope to share some stuff with u later.

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