This two-part post will be useful for teachers who would like a thorough and organized approach to teaching basic rhythm skills, as well as students who want to improve their understanding of rhythm and rhythmic skills.
The piano, and so much music written for it, is a highly-rhythmic instrument. While it has strings, they’re hit by hammers. Neither a pure string nor a percussion instrument, the piano inhabits a world of its own. Nevertheless, because of the nature of the instrument and its highly-rhythmic repertoire, every pianist must work to acquire superior rhythmic skills. These skills include the abilities to:
- Keep a steady beat
- Read rhythmic notation
- Play rhythms accurately and in time
- Recognize (and possibly notate) rhythms by ear
- Identify and play standard “feels” such as swing or shuffle (in jazz and blues styles especially)
Learning how to perform various rhythms can be worked on without written music. That said, for students who can already read rhythmic notation to some extent, there are a number of written exercises that are helpful for improving rhythm skills.
Playing combinations of whole, dotted half, half and quarter notes in common (4/4) time yields a variety of rhythms. But for most students, it’s easiest to tackle the subject of basic rhythms and how to count and perform them accurately when they’re ready to play 8th note triplets and 16th notes. Why? Because a simple quarter note can be divided into combinations of two, three or four parts to yield the most fundamental rhythms that comprise the vast majority of notated music. (Of course, learning these rhythms is also essential for students studying improvised styles such as blues and jazz. The more options we have at our fingertips, the more interesting our improvised solos will be.)
Dividing the Quarter Note
Just as a whole note can be divided into two equal parts to make half notes, a quarter note can be divided into two equal parts to make eighth notes. When the denominator (bottom number) of the time signature is 4 (indicating a quarter note is equivalent to one count or beat), each eighth note receives exactly half of a beat:
A quarter note can also be divided into three equal parts to make an eighth note triplet. Each note of the triplet receives exactly one-third of the beat. Eighth note triplets are beamed together with a “3” above them (often but not always in brackets):
Finally, a quarter note can be divided into four equal parts to make sixteenth notes. Each sixteenth note receives exactly one-fourth of the beat:
In the most commonly-employed time signatures, 4/4 and 3/4, the quarter note is the underlying pulse or beat. The following chart shows one beat each of the 10 most common rhythms based on subdivisions of the quarter note into two, three and four parts, and how to count them:
10 Basic Rhythms
Exercises to Improve Rhythmic Reading and Performance
I strongly feel that piano teachers shouldn’t be afraid to get students notating music. Anything a student can write they will understand better and therefore read more easily when they come across it in a piece.
Try using this series of exercises with intermediate-level students who need to gain confidence and accuracy in reading and performing rhythms:
- To practice transitioning between the beat and its fundamental subdivisions of two, three and four, write a rhythm étude (French for “study” or “exercise”) using only quarter notes and rhythms 1, 2 and 5 in the above chart, for a total of four possible rhythms. Use a different rhythm on every beat. The longer your étude, the more practice you’ll get!
- Notate your étude on one treble clef staff, with all notes written on the same line or space, like this:
- After you’ve written the notes, write the counting under them.
- Practice your étude by clapping/tapping or playing a single note on the keyboard while counting out loud.
- Then repeat with a metronome set between 50 and 72.
- Write a rhythm étude using quarter notes and all 10 basic rhythms in the above chart, for a total of 11 possible rhythms. Use a different rhythm on every beat. Write the counting under the notes.
- Practice by clapping/tapping or playing a single note on the keyboard while counting out loud.
- Then practice using a metronome set between 50 and 72.
- Same as Exercise 2 but use notes and Any note of the 10 basic rhythms can be a rest instead:
- Practice as above.
- Add ties at random to the études you wrote for Exercises 2 and 3, and practice as above. Ties should be written between beats (not within beats) like this:
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss the correct performance of triplets, polyrhythms, and standard rhythmic feels, and solutions to common rhythm problems.