Meter and Rhythm: Establishing a Foundation

Here are some tips for teaching aural skills in the area of meter and rhythm.  These are activities I incorporate in my Aural Skills I class.  If you have other tips or comments, please respond in the area provided at the bottom of the page!



Conduct beats with just up and down motion at first

Then decide whether beats group in twos or threes.

Use finger tapping for beat divisions—How many per beat?

Introduce conducting patterns: duple and triple only at first, Add quadruple meter last

ID meter from recordings (eg. simple triple meter):

2’s                   3’s

Beats per measure:     Duple               Triple

Divisions per beat:       Simple            Compound


Make meter ID a first step in all subsequent rhythmic understanding in reading and notating music.



Rhythm Reading with Conducting

Conduct and “tah” or use some silly syllable

Perhaps speak the rhythm with traditional counting syllables (1 & 2 &) if students are familiar with this.


Point and Sing

Put carefully chosen short rhythmic patterns on board

Students “tah” rhythms while conducting as teacher points to patterns



Teacher conducts and improvises rhythmic phrases using the patterns just practiced.  Start with short (say, 2-measure) phrases.

The students echo them back while conducting.

(Could notate a phrase after doing several of these echoes.)



Assign rhythms for in-class performance.  Allow a few moments during which to scan them before asking people to perform.

Hear small groups and individuals.  Duets are great.

Conduct while singing “tah” or silly syllables (eg. duets with syllable “ping” for one part and “pong” for the other.)

Assign a set of selections to prepare for individual performance at the subsequent class session.

Once they are confident with this, have them prepare a carefully chosen set in order to prepare to sight read a similar selection in the subsequent class session.


Speak poetry set to rhythm by Anne Hall or others.


Speak text of a song with appropriate rhythms while conducting.

Try various accents (southern drawl, British, Scottish, etc.).

Have some students who are not performing the poetry create a rhythmic backdrop, a “groove,” to support it.


Duets performed by one person

Each person performs each part individually

Each person taps both simultaneously

As a useful intermediate step toward tapping both parts simultaneously: while slowly tapping, try saying “right,” “left,” or “both” depending on which hand or hands have an event.

Tap bottom part, tah the upper part

Then reverse it: tap the upper part, and tah the bottom


Rhythm chain

Teacher assigns each person a position in a human “chain” (succession)

Teacher defines the kind of rhythms to be used (say, only quarters and eighths to begin with)

Note: Everyone conducts continuously during this exercise

Teacher initiates conducting and creates two measures of rhythm

The next person in the chain repeats the teacher’s second measure and improvises a new second measure of rhythms.

The next person in the chain repeats the last person’s second measure and improvises a new second measure of rhythms.

This continues until it comes back to the teacher, who ends it.

If the class is able to complete the chain without tempo fluctuations or breaks, there is great rejoicing.


Divided-and-Conquer Reading

Divide selection into portions (every two bars, according to phrase markings in score, etc.)

Assign people to portions.

Assign beforehand or call out student’s names just before new portion begins, indicating that they are to perform the next portion.

Can encourage hand-offs: first performer gradually fades out until the “baton” has been passed and the next performer is secure.


Notation from a Set of Patterns

Teacher presents a collection of common patterns on the board

Teacher assembles a longer rhythmic phrase (with or without pitch) by drawing from these patterns and performs it for class

Students identify the order of patterns used and notate it


Understanding Rhythm

Emphasize pattern recognition rather than “measuring” the length of every note—hear in “words” rather than “phonemes.”

Use conducting pattern to place starts of events in their metrical context.

Use proto-notation to measure the lengths of notes against a metrical “ruler.”


Assign words to rhythmic recurring patterns

For example, given simple rhythms in six-eight meter, you could use place names:


Students can demonstrate understanding by providing place names.


Notate rhythm of a portion of music familiar to the student

(See steps under “Rhythmic Dictation” below)


Rhythm Dictation (performed with or without pitch)

Listen for meter and the general “lay of the land.”

Can begin conducting even while listening.

Echo it back out-loud or by imagining it.

Maintain articulation and accentuation of the original.

Teacher supplies beat unit (bottom number of meter signature) or the note-value for the first note

Use a variety of beat units.

Do not give away the meter or the number of measures.

Understand the rhythm

Pattern recognition and metrical placement of events  (see “Understanding Rhythm” above)

Notate the rhythm

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