How to Teach Rhythm To Beginner Music Students

By Jade Bultitude
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Having good rhythm is vital for all musicians but unfortunately it is not often taught as well as it could be. It’s tough for teachers to know where to start with how to teach rhythm.

Rhythm is vital if you want to play any piece of music and it gets progressively harder as the pieces become more challenging. If you have good rhythm you can play anything and also be one of those musicians who has excellent sight reading!  

how to teach rhythm

In order to achieve good rhythm I believe it is important to focus on it from right at the beginning. Being good at rhythm does not need to be difficult but it is a process where you can’t miss out any steps.  

The first place to start is to make sure that you understand the difference between rhythm and Beat. They are completely different and without understanding this basic fundamental difference you will not be able to move forward with your understanding of rhythm. 

So, let’s firstly explore what a beat is. 

What is a Beat?

The beat is the pulse of the music. It never changes or stops and goes throughout the whole piece of music. Think of it like your heart beat. Your heartbeat is continuous and always even. It may speed up if you are running or slow down when you are sleeping but it will always be even and consistent (or certainly should be!). 

Try and tap your heart in time and gradually bring this into moving the body in time. 

My favourite way to begin to develop this sense of pulse is by encouraging marching on the spot in time with a metronome at 60. Why 60? Because it is the speed of a second of course! Not too fast and not too slow. A lovely Andante tempo some might say. 

Encouraging this marching, really gets the entire body involved in the experience making it easier for our brains to digest. It also allows us a base from which to begin to develop a sense of rhythm. 

Understanding and feeling this fundamental pulse is so important and if you can do this then rhythms will begin to happen naturally.

Now you understand what the beat is what do we do next?

link beat with basic rhythms

Next, I like to link this fundamental feeling of pulse in with basic rhythms. And I mean really basic! A simple row of crotchets (quarter notes) is honestly the best place to start. Being able to think about both the pulse and the rhythm at the same time is the next place to start. Even if the pulse and the rhythm are in this case, the same. 

For this we will keep the pulse, marching along whilst clapping this very simple and basic rhythm on top! 

A steady crotchet beat is of course, a pulse but to be able to think about the two things separately is really the first and best skill to develop. By marching the pulse and clapping the visual image of crotchets we can begin to develop this connection.  

Having this crotchet rhythm written out visually is so helpful to encourage the body and mind connection. 

Learning Harder Rhythms

It is important not to move on too quickly from here, and to ensure the understanding is there. Once the understanding is there you will find that you can very quickly progress into more challenging rhythms. 

The next step which is always fun is to pick a famous nursery rhyme, such as baa baa black sheep, humpty dumpty or anything you know! Clap the beat and sing the rhyme over the top. You can move this into marching the pulse and singing and clapping the rhythm and then moving this into just clapping the rhythm. This is another way of seeing the difference between pulse and rhythm. You can also write out the rhythms for these famous rhymes. 

By using nursery rhymes you can begin slowly building up into more complicated rhythms. You will begin to include crotchet rests, quavers, quaver rests and slowly build up to more. 

There are also then some excellent books out there that have some prewritten out rhythms that can be used as you progress. The most famous of which is the Hindemith book but I also love this Alfreds one. 

You can also use the pieces that you and your students are playing, particularly if they are getting a bit messed up with a particular section! 

Use Words To Remember Key Rhythms

I also love to use words to help remember common rhythms. 

My favourite words are the ones based on insects: 

  • Worm
  • Bee
  • Spider
  • Grasshopper
  • Butterfly 
  • Caterpillar 

But there are some other great ones you can use such as Milk, tea, coffee etc. 

Or simply make up your own! This works as a great fun activity to get students thinking about their rhythm! 

However, do remember that it is also extremely important to really understand the fundamentals of the divisions of the rhythm. If a student fully relies on the words you may find that as rhythms get harder they won’t understand sufficiently.

Understanding that each note divides into two gradually getting shorter and shorter is so important. Although obvious, remember to use this diagram as it makes it very clear! 

Is there an easy way to understand the rhythm divisions?

I like to use the image of cakes or pizza! 

Four cakes (or pizzas!) to represent the semibreve

Two cakes to represent the minim

1 cake to represent the crotchet

1/2 to represent the quaver

This can be done with any image that is easily divided … if I’m honest it is just a way of me sneaking cake into my teaching room!

If your student has not yet done fractions at school, because as you can imagine, this helps so much, I do recommend using the words to begin with and also spending time clapping the basic rhythms. 

What else should I focus on?

In order to really understand your rhythms you also need to have a secure understanding of time signatures… so make sure to read my information page on time signatures here! 

time signature pyramid, man with guitar sitting looking confused

How can I practice my rhythm at home on my own?

There are some excellent apps that you can use to practice this at home on your own! To name a few:

  • Tone Gym – gives you specific rhythms to listen to and tap or see and tap! Although pricey the gradual increase in difficulty helps so much
  • Rhythm Trainer – this excellent app is completely free
  • Tom Play – want to play your instrument and practice your rhythm? This is a great place to start, you can gradually build up difficulty, change the speed of the metronome etc
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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.