How to Teach Kids to Read Rhythms 

 January 1, 2024

By  Kale Good

Are you looking to unlock your student's rhythmic potential? This article is here to help kids master the art of reading rhythms. Learning to read music can be a daunting task for young musicians, but with the tips you'll read here, it doesn't have to be. This step-by-step approach build's children's confidence while preparing them to read rhythms with ease. Read on and see how you can help your student's become confident musicians.

Children (and adults) learn to read rhythms best when they can already play them and have an experiential understanding of the difference between pulse and rhythm. This article will help you guide your students through that process. 

The steps below are approximate; steps can overlap as your experience and understanding of each student guides you. Note that establishing a solid rhythmic understanding takes many weeks. This foundational work is essential for a child to confidently approach reading rhythms. 

Sidebar: Put the Music On the Stand, even if they're not reading. 

I teach Suzuki Method guitar lessons in Philadelphia. My students start reading music after they've been playing for a year or two. However, I tell the parents in my studio to put the music on the stand, even if their child isn't reading it.

Children are naturally curious and will begin to recognize and do basic decoding of written music without any prompting. This familiarity will make the transition to note and rhythm reading more comfortable for your child.

Listening First

Rhythm is a fundamental part of the human experience; if you can walk, you have rhythm. 

Many students who need help with rhythm have an inadequate understanding of how the rhythm or repertoire sounds. Their "inner ear" can not sing accurately. 

The easiest way to remedy this is to have the students listen to performances of their repertoire as often as possible. This will clear up almost all rhythmic problems seen in the repertoire and help develop rhythmic confidence. 

Teacher's Pulse: Long Tones and Subdivisions

The first stage of preparing children to read rhythms is giving them an experiential understanding of Long Tones (1+ beats) and subdivisions of the beat. 

Throughout these exercises, the teacher will play a repeated drone note (if playing a scale, use the tonic. If playing on a single note, play 1 octave lower). This provides an external steady pulse for the child to get familiar with without the pressure of a metronome. The teacher can add foot percussion to enhance the sense of pulse. 

  1. Long TonesStudents plays a single note or scale over it, playing 1 note for every 2 or 4 notes the teacher plays (tell the student that "for every 4 notes I play, you play 1 note). The teacher can count to help out (note: it's easier for everyone except trained musicians to play rhythms accurately when counting using Tabuteau counting. To do this, play on the larger number rather than the small, i.e., 1 2 3 4). 
  2. Randomized Long Tones: Student rolls a dice and plays every X pulses (it's okay to do 5 or 6). 
  3. SubdivisionsStudent starts by playing 2 notes for everyone 1 note the teacher plays, then 4 (again, Tabuteau counting is best. Place the largest number of the subdivision on the pulse, i.e., 1 2 3 4)
  4. Random Subdivisions: Student rolls a dice and plays X subdivisions every pulse (it's okay to do 5 or 6, but this is trickier. Again, Tabuteau Counting). Teacher adjusts tempo as necessary.  
  5. Use Rhythm Dice: As above, using either this paper dice or production rhythm dice to casually familiarize your students with written note values. For subdivisions, now is a good time to explain flags vs. beams. 
  6. Dotted Quarter-Eighth: See Upbeats and Syncopations below. 

Student Playing With Student's Pulse

At this point, it's time for the student to take over and make their own pulse. They can go through the exercises above and replace the teacher's pulsed drone with their stomp (bonus points if you put the foot percussion on them). The teacher can still play a drone tone; if your instrument is incapable of an unpulsed drone (I'm looking at you, piano and guitar), use another source. 

Note that students tend to keep a better beat when alternating feet as if walking (standing instruments, you can indeed have your students march or walk in place). I suspect this is due to the similarity to walking; I like to think it triggers something profound and fundamental in the ambulatory movement part of the brain. It's also best for students to establish a steady stomping beat before they begin playing. This helps them develop the ability to jump into someone else's tempo and hear and plan their own performance tempo. 

Sidebar: Getting Kids to Play with a Head-Nod and Cue Breath

Getting kids used to playing on a head nod and a breath is effortless. I call this the "Achoo" game. Tell your students that you will say "Ah-choo" and that they must clap on "choo." 

This fake sneeze sound naturally accompanies a head nod, so kids expect it. Give your best cueing nod as you say, "Ah-choo." Repeat this a few times as necessary for your student's developmental level. You can even have students as young as 3 do the "ah-choo" while you and/or classmates and parents clap along. 

The next developmental step is to tell them you're not going to say "Ah-choo," but you still need them to clap when your head comes down (you can tell them to imagine you saying "Ah-choo"). 

When you do this without saying "Ah-Choo," add a sharp intake of breath instead of the "Ah" syllable, just like a conductor would. Practice this for a few weeks; before you know it, you will be cueing your students with a breath (no nod needed). Soon, they'll be intuiting when to play along with you, just like a trusted ensemble partner. 

Note that, to be effective, all cues need to be predictable. This means that the head nod (or baton wave) needs to 1) start and stop at the same place and 2) move up and down at the same speed.

Upbeats and Syncopations: 

Once students can play subdivision and their repertoire with the teacher's pulse and their stomping, it's time to get them playing up-beats.

Start by lifting your leg and describing a heavy weight held only by a string. The string is cut (make a cutting motion with your fingers), and the weight falls to the ground, making a loud noise (slamming your foot to the ground). 

Next, lift your leg in the air and tell your student that you will play two notes; the first note will cut the string, and the second note will be the sound of the heavy weight hitting the ground. Play one note (it can be helpful to breathe in a short, sharp cue breath first) and start moving your foot to the ground, then play another note as you slam the ground with your foot

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Have the student then do the same thing. Initially, they need to avoid repeating this with a steady beat. Play it multiple times with significant pauses in between, which is developmentally appropriate at this stage. In fact, getting the proper dynamics of this two-note group is more critical, more accessible, and more valuable. The goal here is simple: to get used to creating a "ba BUM" dynamic. 

Why teach this way rather than teaching the more familiar feeling of "bouncing" off the beat? This is a subtle instance of teaching proper note-grouping. Music moves forward; rhythms are easier to play and sound better when musicians think about where they're leading to rather than where they come from. Teaching this way ensures that students emphasize downbeats after pickup notes; this sounds musical. Everything is easier when it sounds musical. 

As students practice this, they can play with less and less of a pause between notes. As they develop more comfort with this, it's advantageous to have them change notes on the downbeat; I recommend "ti -> do" as a place to start. 

Eventually, they'll be able to play steady eighth notes while stomping (this process will be accelerated if they've been practicing repertoire with steady eighth notes runs). Once this happens, have them play their scale in eighth notes while stomping, making sure that they maintain the strong-weak pattern (the first note of the scale (do) is played softly so that students feel the following upbeat (re) as leading to the following note (mi), rather than coming from the first note).

With this exercise, you can easily teach double sixteenth note pickups by simply telling students to play three notes: two to cut the string and one when the weight hits the ground. 

Once they are comfortable with this, I introduce them to dotted notes. I don't explain dotted notes explicitly; only that I want them to play a pattern where they play a downbeat, wait for a downbeat, then play an upbeat-downbeat combo. A quick drawing of some dots on a whiteboard can be helpful in this regard.

Sidebar: In The Cracks

"In the Cracks" is a tricky but fun game you can use to teach the upbeat feel. Some students get this quickly, while others need more time. 

The game is played by only playing "In The Cracks" between downbeats. Every note the student plays is an upbeat. You can demonstrate this by playing a scale and stomping your foot, preferably with foot percussion, to make the beat more obvious. 

Eventually, downbeats can be provided by the teacher or the metronome. Initially, some students need time to develop this ability by stomping while they play; they may need to be reminded to stomp when their leg/foot is up. Sometimes, I tell students to play when their knee hits the ceiling rather than when their foot hits the floor. 

As always, it's easiest to play upbeats when you feel them moving towards the downbeat. How can you accomplish this when multiple upbeats are played in a row? Have each note crescendo towards the next downbeat. Start with small groups, then build them up.  

I find it helpful to tell students to imagine they're stomping an imaginary ceiling instead of the floor. When their leg/foot/toe/heel rises and hits the ceiling, that's when they play. 

The goal here is to be able to play an entire scale consisting only of upbeats. You can also have your students improvise using only upbeats if you teach improvisation. 

Play with a metronome.

As these students have been stomping for quite a while, playing with a metronome is a relatively small development. This article gives tips for beginners getting familiar with a metronome. 

Explain the building nature of rhythms. 

Remembering the rhythmic values of notes isn't tricky if you teach children to "build" the note values. This can be done with cut-up printouts or Music Mind Game's foam note set. Some index cards numbered 1, 2, 4, 1/2, and 1/4 are also needed. 

First, have the kids build the note values. Start with a whole note (4 beats). Add a stem (2 beats), then fill in the dot (1 beat), add a flag (1/2 beat), and, finally, add another flag (1/4 beat). After each step, have the kids lay the correct number card next to the notes.

Have the children build notes in this order until it's easy. After they're comfortable with that, place the cards upside down and shuffle them. Have them pick one card, then build the correct note value. 

Each added element decreases note value by half

Related Content:

Reading Rhythms

Using a rhythm dice is a great way to develop kids' familiarity with written rhythms. If you've already been doing this with a single rhythm using scales or single notes, now is the time to create a pattern of rhythms using multiple dice. This gets them used to using multiple different rhythmic values back-to-back. 

Start with two dice and add more rhythms as your students get comfortable. 

At all times, be aware that unmusical things are hard to play! Arranging the dice into a pattern that fits musically into 4/4 always gives kids the best chance to succeed. However, that may not be enough if they're playing the pattern on a scale; not all patterns make sense with the scale. If they're struggling, tell them it doesn't sound very musical and would be easier with pitches that fit the rhythm better. This ensures their is not diminished. Then, play the rhythm on a single note. 

Reading Music

At this point, it's time to introduce your student reading pitches; I strongly recommend avoiding Every Good Boy Does Fine and FACE. I prefer the Landmark Note system when I teach kids to read music notes. You can also use some apps to help reinforce your child's understanding of rhythm. And they'll soon be ready to learn how to use a metronome

If your students can already read notes, then pick up a progressive note reading method book that's popular with your instrument. 

Kale Good

Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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