Saturday, March 5, 2016

Meet the Blue Bugs: Why We Use Rhythm Syllables

Look at those Blue Bugs! Where did they come from? Here's the long answer you won't get in class.

Sound, then Sight
Music is a language, with both written and spoken forms.  Imagine if you hadn't learned the language yet and someone handed you a page of chicken-scratchy marks. "Great news, student! You're going to look at these marks and be able to speak our language from now on!"  I've heard from a few adults who told me about their troublesome first exposures to reading music in middle school orchestra that felt as overwhelming and confusing as being lost in a foreign land.

There's a better way, of course. Before a child learns to read English, he naturally internalizes how grammar works, picks up thousands of vocabulary words, and even masters some idioms! He does it by hearing the sound of the language and using it himself.  So, when he's talking fluently and starts to look at letters, he has a foundation of how language works and is looking for ways that the letters and words fit in with what he already knows.

In music, having exposure and using the elements (playing with them) before learning all the abstract rules and symbols is especially important because there is so much to hear in each bit of music! The child can learn to internalize and use music before being formally taught mathematical and abstract concepts behind it.  Playing with music is more effective for teaching, less stressful, and more fun! In Let's Play Music, all avenues of musical experience eventually lead to notational literacy.  Our slogan is sounds before symbols.

Beat, rhythm, and tempo must be taught together, but should be separated from pitch (melody and harmony) to make isolating elements easier. That's why we chant.

Rhythm Syllables
Like solfege, rhythm syllables provide a singable word to verbally associate with audited sounds.   They give us a way to help children read and perform rhythms correctly and easily, right from the first lesson.

It's hard to teach a concept (think about colors) without any words to attach to the ideas. Official words like quarter note, and eighth note are useful names once you understand fractions, but super abstract and not at all singable.  When teaching rhythm, we are looking for words or syllables that sound like what the notation means.  "Quar-ter-note" does not sound at all like a quarter note!

*Oops. In the top line, the whole note should have Ta-a-a-a *
Zoltan Kodaly, promoter of the solfege hand signs, used a rhythm syllable system.  The single beat, or quarter note, is called Ta.  A half note (2 beats) is Ta-a.  A dotted half note (3 beats) is Ta-a-a.  Can you guess what a whole note is (4 beats?) Yes! Ta-a-a-a.  Two eighth notes are ti-ti (tee tee).  Four sixteenth notes are tiki-tiki (teekee teekee).  

I like that the Kodaly syllables are easy to say and fit well with the notes, BUT the system of nonsense syllables takes practice to learn and remember.  If all the notes and names are introduced at the same time, you will hear kids saying the syllables but mixing them up.  Am I supposed to say Ti or Ta for that?  One school teacher said to me, "If we're going to spend a lot of time learning what to say when we see each Kodaly note, I'd rather just spend time learning to count." Don't give up yet...

Natural Language
Music educator, Carl Orff, taught rhythm in a more integrated, natural-language way.  The inflections of spoken English naturally give rise to rhythms, so using words to replace rhythms is an intuitive move. Children find it natural and delightful to use real words! Students of Orff method are taught rhythm in steps:

1. Find an interesting phrase or string of words. Repeat it several times. Start to draw out the beat and emphasize it.

2. Use your body to find the beat (not the rhythm yet). March, slap legs, or tap your body while chanting the phrase.

3. Within the context of the beat, clap or tap the rhythms of the words as you say them. Examine and reveal what the rhythms were for each word! Any words can become the 'rhythm syllables.' This puts the focus on easily hearing and performing the rhythms instead of stopping to 'count it out.'

Here's a chart, created by a music teacher, for finding rhythm in food language:

 Quarter notes could be: me, you, beef, pork. Two eighth notes could be: sister, bookmark, gameboy, Volvo, cocoa, cookies.  Four sixteenth notes could be: pepperoni, watermelon, snickerdoodle, politician. But of course, these words could potentially represent other rhythms, depending on how they are spoken/used within the beat.  And, did you notice that just saying any of these words doesn't give you a rhythm?  It takes a string of words, or a phrase, or a repeated word, to establish the beat and meter that define the base from which the rhythm emerges.

Immersed in Language At Home 

The Orff steps are SO fun to play with at home. First, because rhythm can't exist properly without establishing a beat first, I love that you take time to help your child find the beat. Second, everything is more fun when you get to use your body. And third, the magic of learning a language naturally is that you are immersed in it, all the time.  After you try this, you'll start to see that your child is immersed in opportunities to experience rhythm, she just needs a little guidance to hear it and think about it.

I was taking my daughter to school and made the observation, "Lots of parents dropping off their children."  After I said it, the car was quiet as I parked, so I said it again. And again.  When I got my daughter out of the car we started walking to the door, we both chanted it and started to march to the beat. A 4/4 meter emerged. We added some loose arm-swings and hip gyrations to our march, because we are that family at school.

Lots of parents dropping of their children! 
Lots of parents dropping off their children!

*I use bold to indicate where the strong beat (and our footfall) naturally developed. Use your voice to emphasize the beat.* 

Then, as most parents are saying, "good-bye dear, I love you," I was whispering to my daughter,  "what do you hear when I say lots-of..."  and she answers, "beetle, beetle, caterpillar, beetle!"  Yes, any words can have rhythm, but we also want to have some set words that always represent what we are talking about, so we can discuss it.

After school, we decided to have snacks of apple slices and cheese sticks.  As we walked into the kitchen, we marched to apple slices and cheese sticks. Before thinking about rhythm, we played out the beat and meter (4/4). By the time I was done cutting the apple slices and cheese sticks she had chanted along, tapped the counter, and figured out it was beetle, butterfly, bug, bug!

Bugs Have Fun
So when we teach rhythm in Let's Play Music, we need to use a name for our rhythms that doesn't change day-to-day.  Should we pick a natural language word for each rhythm, or should we pick Kodaly's Ta-a-a-a words?  Maybe this was an easy choice, because just about every four year-old I've talked to agrees that silly words are easier to remember and more importantly, way more fun! 

Kids learn best when they are having fun, and our motivation at this stage is to use the rhythms enough to master them and internalize themIt makes sense to use a natural language word for each rhythm, that stays the same day-to-day, and is fun and a bit silly.  Bugs!

The bugs have one more advantage over the other rhythm syllables- the images of the bugs look similar to the images of the rhythm notation!  Subtle hints in the pictures make it easy to connect between what we are saying (beetle) and what we are seeing ( ). This is especially helpful when it comes time for learning to count the mainstream way.

One of my teacher friends told me, "I don't need rhythm syllables. I'll just teach my students counting, because that's the mainstream way of dealing with rhythm."

It reminded me of an interesting discussion from my college ASL (American Sign Language) class about teaching ASL to deaf children. Some parents of deaf children are worried that if their child learns ASL first, they will have a hard time learning English, or that ASL will interfere with the extensive therapy needed for learning to speak. They wanted their children to learn English as a first language and be fluent so they can communicate with the mainstream world.

The research shows that the benefits of having a working language for the child far outweigh the challenges of having to learn to read and speak English as a second language. Having a natural, successful way to communicate, and using it to mastery, sets the child up to understand language and grammar. Upon that framework, a second language can more easily be learned than trying to learn English first.

So, I think about mainstreaming our Let's Play Music students.  Yes, they will need to be able to count rhythms in a mainstream way before they graduate, so we teach this using our Orange rhythm cards in the third year. Why don't we just use Orange cards in the Blue semester, and teach counting right away? It's because they are the wrong color, right?! Well, it's because we want students to learn and internalize rhythm by using it, in a natural way, before we "teach" it.

Your four year-old is being introduced to the concept of rhythm the same way she learned to speak.  Instead of a lecture on how math relates to notes and how the notes add up, we give your child a way to start using rhythm immediately.  Without always feeling pressured to 'count it out', Blue Bugs students can read and play complicated rhythms correctly and easily!  This is the goal of our first exposure to rhythm.  Learn to speak before you learn to read and analyze.

Beat Function
Yes, in third year you will get math lessons about adding up notes. I am happy to teach the counting method next, because  counting represent a beat function.

In a beat function, the tactus (first sound) is always the same and the half-beat is always the same, regardless of how the rest of the measure is filled out. In counting, the tactus is the number of the beat.

So, the cool thing about chanting within a function is that each person can be chanting a different type of note (or bug) and even though you'll be saying different things, when you DO say something, it lines up perfectly with others who say that word.  The caterpillars have a lot more to say than the half notes, but they all say '1' and '3' at the same time. 
Numbers in gray font can be spoken, but not "played" or clapped.

Never Too Old for Bugs

Even seasoned Let's Play Music teachers like Justine Turcotte in Rexburg, Idaho still use BUGS to help get rhythm right when playing music!  Justine found herself tasked with this tricky bit of orchestral harp music from the ballet Petrouchka by Igor Stravinsky.  Starting at marker 228, she mentally chanted Grasshopper over and over for the next 38 measures!

Can you see the grasshoppers?  The music is in 2/4 time, so there are 2 bugs in each measure. The 'grass' is always an eighth rest and the 'hopper' is two sixteenths.  And what bug do you see over and over up there at marker 226?

Now that you know a little more about rhythm and how our Blue Bugs came to be, go play with Bugs in your life.  

Go play with bugs in your life.
Grasshopper Beetle Bug Bug!
Go play with bugs in your life.
Go play with bugs in your life.
Go play with bugs in your life.  Are you chanting yet?

-Gina Weibel, M.S. 
Let's Play Music Teacher 



  1. I love this! I'm trying to find the bug that represents a dotted half note. Could you please tell me what you use!!?

    1. We introduce the dotted QUARTER note always followed by an eighth note in our 2nd year curriculum as part of a song. (Of course! Teach the concept in a song that demonstrates it!) In the song/story we pretend to shoot an arrow. That long, held tension of pulling back on the bow mirrors the holding feeling of maintaining the note for an extra half-beat. The quick release of the arrow mirrors the quick feeling of a note that is only half-beat. We say "shoo-oot the" as we sing these two notes.

      As for the dotted HALF note, we don't introduce it until 3rd year curriculum. At that point we call it "another type of slug", as is the whole note. In 3rd year, we transition to the common names, so students are ready (and more likely) to simply know it as dotted half-note and still be able to use it correctly.
      The short answer: there's a whole family of "slugs" in our garden!