Teaching Kids about Rhythm: Thoughts on Note Values

By James Crocker

The following is from James Crocker’s blog on music and children, http://shapesounds.com/blog

As an Englishman in America, I get daily reminders of how the two countries are, in the words of Shaw, ‘separated by a common language.’  Musical terms are not immune, and none are more fundamental than the names used for note lengths.

Semi-breves, minims, crotchets and quavers divide musical time in Britain. As a child, I aspired to fast semiquavers and faster demisemiquavers. There was also – in theory, at least – a hemidemisemiquaver, and a beguiling, yet improbable, semihemidemisemiquaver. (Presumably this ironic sequence continues indefinitely; ever longer words representing ever shorter time).

Compared to the eminently sensible way by which Americans name their notes (whole-notes split into half-, quarter-, and eighth-notes, etc) the British system is a mess. The ‘Quaver’ (eighth note), meaning to sing with a trill, has a characteristic hook shape. Centuries ago, that symbol was instead used for the ‘crotchet’ (quarter note). Today’s crotchet is plain, though the name remains French for small hook, or croc.

‘Minim’ comes from Minima, meaning shortest, despite being one of the longer notes. ‘Semi-breve’, unsurprisingly, means half a breve, but it is, to an American, a ‘whole note’ and generally considered by both to be the longest. The seldom seen ‘breve’ is twice its length, yet translates as ‘brief’! The names may have history, charm and, perhaps, a little mysteriousness, but British students must learn them by rote.

By contrast, the US nomenclature is a hymn to logic and simplicity. It is no secret that music and mathematics are closely linked, but rarely is it so overt. Time is halved and halved again forming a sequence of fractions. The bloated semihemidemisemiquaver becomes a neat 1/128th note; just as difficult to play, but far easier to comprehend. Writing out rhythm is an exercise in adding fractions. When my son Dorian is ready to understand fractions I am sure the musical notes will be of great benefit. Until then, however, I imagine the words ‘quarter’ and ‘eighth’ sound as arbitrary as ‘crotchet’ and ‘quaver’.

I am very glad to have learned and taught both naming conventions; each has its merits. Of course, children should learn whichever names their culture uses. However, there is an interesting story to the British names which has led me to alter how I first introduce rhythm, beats and pulse.

The fact is, minims were once the shortest notes and breves were brief. Over the centuries, a sort of rhythmic drift has occurred. Where a composer from the Middle Ages would have used breves (double whole-notes), his early Renaissance counterpart would have used semi-breves (whole notes). By the end of the Renaissance, the same music would have employed minims (half-notes), while a modern composer would choose crotchets (quarter notes).  No-one knows why this has happened, or if it will continue. When the breve was brief (remember, it is now twice the length of the longest note in common use), there was a note, double its length, called the ‘longa’. Twice the length of a longa was the ‘maxima’.  To a medieval monk writing plainsong, a quaver would have been as outlandish as a semihemidemisemiquaver is to us.  The key is that these notes are all relative; throughout the ages, composers have generally only use a small range of note values.

Experiencing the fractional breakdown of rhythm is far more important for young children than naming notes or recognizing symbols. They should first hear, play and move to beats double and half the rate of each other; reading and writing them should come later. To reduce rhythm to a familiar level that even a three-year-old can understand, I link four pulse rates to rhythms familiar to everyone, even three-year-olds: rhythms found in the body:

  • a Stomp is the longest, marking the metre;
  • a Jump lasts two or three beats;
  • a Step marks the beat;
  • Tip-Toeing divides the beat

In the spirit of the British names, there could also be a FastRun, a SuperFastRun, and a  CrazySuperFastRun…

These note names – Stomp, Jump, Step and Tip-Toe – offer a great first step (or jump!) on the road to rhythmic awareness.

James Crocker is a musician, teacher and dad sharing ideas on how to introduce the language of music to young kids.  He is also a member of CMN.


1 comment

  1. A fun way to introduce note values to the very young.

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