Rhythm and Beat – understanding the fundamentals of music education
Rhythm and beat are two of the most essential elements of making, learning and enjoying music, and are embedded in the music curriculum across all year levels.
Rhythm and Beat are the building blocks of music, and yet they are the elements of music that many generalist teachers find challenging to teach and students find hard to grasp. However, understanding beat and rhythm is key to success in the music classroom and sets students up for musical success later in life.
Understanding of the roles of Rhythm and Beat.
Beat is the steady, underlying pulse of the music (like your heartbeat, a clock’s tick or the part of the music that you would clap or tap along too).
The rhythm is the changing patterns of long sounds, short sounds and silences that are played or sung in a song.
Why teach Rhythm and Beat?
One of the most important parts of teaching music is helping students learn how to keep a beat and recognise musical pulse and rhythm. Being able to keep a steady beat and rhythm are the absolute most important skills to develop in young musicians. It’s more important than pitch or dynamics or timbre, because no matter how well you can control those other elements of music, if you are not playing in time with a steady beat, it is difficult to make music with other people and have others understand your musical ideas.
When we’re talking about beat and rhythm, we’re talking about time. Music is art that decorates time in the same way that visual arts decorate space. Music doesn’t exist without time.
Without beat and rhythm, music is just noise. Beat and rhythm are how we organise sound into music.
Not being able to make music in time with others limits how you can communicate your musical ideas with other people and limits the complexity of music you can create.
Being able to make music in time with other people is the most important skill we can develop in musicians. As an audience member, you may not be able to pinpoint when performers are out of time with each other, but you will feel it.
Developing a sense of rhythm and beat is entrenched in the music curriculum for all year levels. At every year level, in every content descriptor, developing a reliable sense of beat and rhythm will set students up for success.
Rhythm and Beat teaches students more than staying in time:
Listening skills: Developing a sense of beat and rhythm requires active listening to timing, duration and patterns of musical sounds. Students learn to discern underlying beat from rhythm. This helps them improve their auditory perception. This heightened listening ability can translate to improved listening skills in other areas, such as paying attention to instructions, understanding verbal cues, or context cues in a foreign language or the nuances of spoken language. It can also help with the delivery of public speaking.
Coordination skills: Music inherently involves coordinating physical movements with specific beats and rhythms. Whether it’s clapping hands, tapping feet, or playing a musical instrument, students need to synchronise their actions with the underlying pulse of the music. Practicing rhythmic patterns and movements helps develop fine motor skills, hand eye coordination, overall physical coordination and teamwork. These skills can extend beyond music and contribute to improved coordination in various activities, such as sports, dance and everyday tasks that require precise timing and movement.
Timing and tempo: Developing a sense of beat and rhythm requires students to understand and maintain a steady beat. They learn to internalise the concept of time, recognise the duration of sounds and the spaces between them. This awareness of timing can help students develop a sense of group cohesion as they learn to work in time with each other. It also trains their ability to anticipate and react to changes in tempo, which can be beneficial in various contexts, like responding to changes in social settings, regulating their emotions or working in teams.
Collaboration skills: Music often involves playing or singing with others. Developing a sense of beat and rhythm is crucial for successful collaboration with other musicians. Students learn to listen to one another, synchronize their playing or singing and maintain a cohesive musical performance. The collaborative aspect encourages teamwork, communication and mutual respect among the players. Students learn to rely on each other, adapt to different playing styles and contribute to a unified musical experience. These collaborative skills can be transferred to group projects, community activities or anywhere where cooperation will lead to success.
How else can music education benefit students?
Linking music with other areas of study can increases students’ problem-solving abilities. Children who study music have “improved spatial intelligence and ability to form mental pictures of objects – skills that are important for more advanced mathematics.”1
Even from an early age music education can support and improve numeracy through counting beats and pattern recognition. It can also build literacy skills by strengthening oral language skills and enhancing phonemic awareness.2
Combining music with other areas of study addresses the curriculum in both subject areas. Incorporating music games and activities into teaching practices allows teachers to embed the general capabilities, including Critical and Creative Thinking, Numeracy, Literacy, and Personal and Social capabilities, into lessons every day.
Music activities can help to develop students’ self-awareness, confidence, concentration, and engagement. Plus playing music together builds classroom connections and cohesion, creating students’ sense of belonging at school.
ARTS:LIVE has a variety of lessons and activities to assist teachers of all levels to bring music into their daily teaching practice. The music games included in the new ARTS:LIVE resource, Introducing Rhythm and Beat, offer simple games to use a brain breaks or to easily teach the fundamentals of music.
- Musical Benefits, Australian Government ‘Learning Potential’, 2020. https://www.learningpotential.gov.au/articles/musical-benefits
- Maria Manuel Vidal, Marisa Lousada, Marina Vigário, ‘Music effects on phonological awareness development in 3-year-old children’, Cambridge University Press, 2020, Maria Manuel Vidal, Marisa Lousada and Marina Vigário. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/applied-psycholinguistics/article/music-effects-on-phonological-awareness-development-in-3yearold-children/CE4DEAEC5E0DE84A47F71212544AA88D