Beginning Rhythm

The general principle in music is “the sound before the symbol”.  Where music educators go wrong is when they just do symbols, just do sounds, or do not explicitly show how sound and symbol correlate.  So before starting rhythm work it is good to start with copying games to warm up our minds.  This is as far as some teachers go in Key Stage 1 and in my opinion, is way, way not far enough.  All Key Stage 1 pupils are capable of recognising and playing a whole variety of basic rhythms.  They just need to be taught what they sound and look like and have time to practice them over weeks with spaced practice further ahead in the school year (this goes for most stuff to do with education too!)

It is good to use instruments to achieve this purpose.  Clapping is fine but playing instruments properly is a requirement of music lessons so let’s use them when teaching rhythm.  Claves are good too, woodblocks a bit piercing, but in my experience, the best instrument to play rhythms shorter than a crotchet is the lollipop drum.


I had three lollipop drums at the beginning of the year but I managed to get the boss to buy me four more which was very useful.  Eventually I would want around 12-15 so we could do paired work with them.  

Once you can copy and play rhythms on instruments, the next stage is simple notation.  A task I start in Year 1 is the rhythm clock.  Here it is:

I first saw this on the MTRS website and I have used it in Key Stage 1-3 ever since.  I should not have to use it in Key Stage 3, but honestly so many children had not come across these basic crotchet and quaver patterns in Primary School so you have to go back to the very basics.  That’s another discussion for another blog post.  There are loads of activities you can do with the clock; recognising rhythms, playing rhythms and I get each child to play a rhythm individually and the class have to work out which one it is.  This gives me a good idea on who can do it and who can’t.  I also use it as an exit ticket to leave the classroom.  I put it on the window next to the door and say a number.  The child has to play the correct rhythm to exit.  If they do not succeed, they watch five pupils successfully do it and then have another go themselves.  Normally they get it after watching their peers.  I could go out to town and assess them all individually on this ability and then write it in their reports.  However, it’s a bit pointless because in time they all do get it and if I assess it immediately, it has no bearing if they have really learned it.  The only way you would know, is if they could do it independently at the end of the school year.  You just have to repeat the activity quite a few times in a row and then space it out over months so they have time to forget and then relearn and consolidate.  David Didau explains this very well in his latest book “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?”  The process of forgetting then relearning embeds these skills into long term memory and then it is hardly ever forgotten.

You would think that this would be easy.  There are only combinations of two different rhythms.  However, young children find this hard because it takes quite a lot of time to fully understand the difference between beat and rhythm and their concept of a steady beat is not always fully formed aurally by Year 1.  This takes time and why the first term of Year 1 is spent trying to focus on keeping a steady beat.  We call the rhythms “fly” and “spider”, the difficulty is when some children say “spider” but play “fly” – a confusion between beat and rhythm.  I tell them the “der” is as important as the “spi” but they still find it quite hard.  I have thought about going down the pure Kodaly route and calling crotchets “ta” and quavers “tee tee” – that would probably solve the problem but we learn so many rhythms using the mini-beasts such as “caterpillar” for semi quavers, “ladybird” and “grasshopper” that it is a shame to go down the dry route of “ta’s” and “tee’s”.  I might do an experiment and have one class doing pure Kodaly and one doing the mini-beasts and see which class does best in future years.

I use the lollipop drums so children can get into pairs and play the game together.  You really need to think the pairs out carefully in advance and pair up high ability with low ability.  It is frustrating for the high ability children but it’s a quickish way of getting most children to a roughly equal standard when learning to play rhythms.  I would say that it is a 2/3 – 1/3 split in most classes when it comes to Y1 and playing basic rhythms.  I also give a copy of the clock out as homework so parents can play with their children and conquer any potential beat/rhythm misunderstanding. 

Currently, I have to supplement the lollipop drums with woodblocks as I don’t have enough lollipop drums but the children find blocks a bit more difficult to manipulate as they don’t always have a handle, and every now and then we end up with a “hammer incident” when a child has whacked their fingers with a woodblock stick and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Also the hard wooden beaters can really knock out your ears with a high pitched click which is why I like the lollipop drums with the soft beaters.  I hear enough high-pitched sounds daily, which means I am probably at least half way to tinnitus.  I have completed the task with every child holding two claves each and that works fine but it can hurt your hands hitting them together all the time.  When a class exits with red, sore hands it does not look very good, even if the children have smiles on their faces.  Tambourines are a mistake as it is so much harder to hear the differences with all that shaking everywhere.  I do use tambourines but later on when we have rhythms over the length of a crotchet.

Year 1 is the right time to start as the children are beginning to learn about telling the time and clocks in general so there are some good cross-curricular links.  Most children in Year 1 know there are 12 hours on a clock and know time goes round in a circle clockwise, but it is good to reinforce these concepts.  I sometimes play the game where we play all the rhythms anti-clockwise so they understand the difference between these two terms.  Maths teachers have never complained.  I will do these rhythms for about three weeks before moving on.  Most teachers then proceed to minims.  I don’t, I go onto semi-quavers “caterpillar” first because we can use the same instruments and the same principles as “flies” and “spiders”.  I have thought about telling them the proper names to the notes and I may change my approach in the future, but currently I save this terminology reveal towards the end of Year 2.

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