Getting The Most Out Of Practice: Part IV

By Jeff Comas


As I mentioned previously, I believe all people should learn to read music. I have witnessed how learning to read music helps children (and adults) develop their cognitive abilities, improve their understanding of concepts such as time & space, pitch, volume, conservation, division & multiplication, and increase their attention span. It also helps students improve coordination (motor skills).

First lets review that reading music is an activity in three and sometimes four dimensions:

  1. Pitch (highness or lowness of the sound),
  2. Rhythm (when notes are played & how long they last),
  3. Dynamics (the volume of the music played),
  4. Timbre (sound quality- this is often dictated by instrument indicated but some instruments can vary their own tone).

The written language of music is quite compact. This means that much information is delivered with minimal symbols. A note’s placement on the staff tells us the pitch, as discussed in Ch. 3, Part 3 of this series. Here we’ll discuss rhythm and reading rhythmic notation.

The best way to learn new rhythmic challenges is to express them verbally.

Rhythm can be defined as a pattern of notes (may include rests) with regular or irregular time values played over a regularly occurring pulse known as the beat.

When we read rhythms, the appearance of the note itself tells the time value of a note. The time values are measured as a function of the beat. Note values are either a multiple of one beat or a fraction of a beat (this is starting to sound like a math class).

Written music is almost always measured in beats. The most common measurement is four beats/measure; this is called four/four time, AKA common time. Music is also measured in groups of 2, 3, 6, 9 beats/measure and sometimes irregular beat groups like 5 or 7.

The whole note, which has just a hollow note head, takes four beats to complete and completely fills one measure of common time. A half note lasts 2 beats and fills half the measure. A quarter note lasts one beat and it takes four to fill a measure. An eight note lasts 1/2 of one beat and takes 8 to fill a measure and so on.

Rhythms can vary greatly in complexity. Reading a series of repeating note values is pretty simple but when a variety of rhythmic values are introduced, the challenge increases.

The best way to learn new rhythmic challenges is to express them verbally.

Essentially, there are three ways to verbalize rhythms: value, syllabic, and metered.

Value represents the time that a note is counted. A whole note would be counted 1-2-3-4, while four quarter notes would be counted 1-1-1-1. Eight notes are counted 1-+ (one-and), sixteenth notes 1-e-+-a (one-e-and –ah).

Syllabic counting can be a bit more fun. Here, words or syllables are said in a rhythmic fashion.  A one-syllable word like peach could represent a quarter note. A two-syllable word like app-le could represent two eighth notes. Any words or syllables can be used.

Metered counting involves counting the beats per measure as you go. It is a little trickier than value or syllabic counting at least at first but has the added value of helping the musician keep their place when reading music.

Here are examples a four beat rhythm of 4-eighth notes followed by 2-quarter notes for each method.


1 +, 1 +, 1, 1


App-le, app-le, peach, peach


1 +, 2 +, 3, 4

Rhythm Words

Good news! As we see more and more rhythmic patterns in notation, we start to recognize the more familiar rhythmic groupings, and in the same way we recognize groupings of letters as words. But when you see something unfamiliar you may have to “sound it out.” As always go slow and work on little bits when learning new material.

Next time we’ll talk dynamics. Until then, let it be easy.

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