from the current issue, Winter 1999

How do you teach the difference between
counting rhythm and musical rhythm?


{Click here to scroll down to the first audio clip in Jennifer Merry's article}
{Click here to go to Richard Chronister's article on the same question}

Introduction by Bruce Berr, Editor

he open-ended nature of this issue's question has spawned two different kinds of responses from our authors. Jennifer Merry has approached the subject from the angle of metronomic versus non-metronomic playing. Her essay explores small variances in rhythmic flow, the kind that reflect what we do in everyday speech but hardly notice (agogic accents), as well as larger ones that are more pronounced and easily perceived by a casual listener as departures from the norm (rubato). Richard Chronister's response to the question presents ways of allowing students to produce rhythm in a natural (and thus musical) way right from the beginning. His discussion also deals tangentially with the limitations of counting, aloud or not.

Both authors' articles provide us with a clear reminder that while rhythm does have something to do with beats, it has a whole lot more to do with the landscape that exists between those beats and the physical gestures we make to naturally traverse that landscape.

You can read more about topics alluded to in these articles in past issues of KEYBOARD COMPANION. The limitations of counting aloud are discussed in the Autumn 1998 issue (Vol. 9, #3). Rubato was explored in the Autumn 1992 issue (Vol. 3, #3) and will be delved into again in an upcoming issue.

Article by Jennifer Merry

{Click here to scroll down to the first audio clip}

s a teacher of young children, I am sometimes ecstatic just to get my piano students to play their pieces with a steady beat while "counting rhythm" accurately! I'm sure there are other teachers like me-getting students to this point can be such a monumental achievement that we may neglect to go beyond basic counting to encourage and foster "musical rhythm." I believe there is much to explore in this question, regardless of the age or musical level of our students.

What is musical rhythm? Perhaps it is the difference between a performance that is stiff and metronomic in its strict adherence to the beat, and a performance that flows with elasticity and flexibility that emanates from the music itself. A rhythmically musical performance seems to take its cues from stylistic considerations, tempo, phrasing, and harmonic structure, as well as form. Sometimes we may not be exactly sure what makes a piece sound rhythmically musical, but we know it when we hear it. The process of getting from the first type of performance to the second can be complex, but it is possible to teach even our youngest students the basic concepts of musical rhythm.

It should not surprise us that some children do not know instinctively how to play musically. Many youngsters are surrounded by popular music that is rigid and inflexible in its rhythm, characterized by a relentless beat that is often synthesized or computerized. Even some CDs and MIDI disks especially designed for use with piano teaching materials can encourage students to be overly metronomic in their playing. In general, our students may not be familiar with the idea of subtle nuances of tempo, and may need help understanding this.

Of course, the ability to play metronomically is necessary, and it is an important skill in its own right. Before students can play with musical rhythm, they must develop beat competence - the ability to feel, audiate, and physically maintain a steady beat, and do so in a variety of different tempos. Just as important, students must also be able to read and physically play the notes of their pieces with confidence and solidity. Only after students have mastered the basic elements of steady beat, rhythm, reading, and physical coordination in a particular piece can they go beyond these basics to create a truly musical performance.


Let's imagine that a student has arrived at this point in the learning process: the piece is played solidly and with steady rhythm. How do we take the student to the next level? One way is to work with the student to elicit musical rhythm organically; in other words, to extract it from the score itself. Teacher and student can work together to notice clues or hints in the score regarding variances in tempo. One of the most important considerations is the style period from which the piece comes. A classical sonata will have a very different rhythm aesthetic than a romantic character piece. Other obvious details to notice in a piece are markings such as ritardando, accelerando, fermata, à tempo, etc. Less obvious but just as important are those things that aren't marked, such as phrase endings that require a bit more time, harmonic changes or surprises that need just a bit of lingering or preparation, wide melodic intervals, flourishes that require the student to accelerate or stretch, etc. At the very least, we should help the student with what the music requires, and especially why the music may require it at any particular point.

After determining these points in the music, how do students learn to play them in an expressive and stylistically appropriate way? Left to their own devices, some students may exaggerate gestures comically, or minimize them to be almost imperceptible, depending upon their moods or personalities. One solution is to give the student an aural model that can be imitated and compared to. Many of these rhythmic experiences can be taught by rote, especially to beginning students who are not as sophisticated in their listening skills. A teacher may model a lovely ritardando, an appropriate fermata, or a graceful phrase ending, and have the student work to match it. As a student progresses, a teacher may also choose to conduct or sing along while the student plays, thus guiding the student through the changes. We hope, of course, that after a number of instances where rote teaching has been used, the student will develop an ear for the sound that is needed, an idea of where that sound is needed, and a number of physical gestures and skills to help them create the sound independently.


Let's take a look at a few music examples to see how some of these ideas may be implemented at different levels. Deceptive or unexpected cadences frequently demand rhythmic flexibility. In the Minuet in F by Mozart, a deceptive cadence occurs in the last four measures of the piece.

Measure 19 ends on the dominant with a vigorous rhythmic pattern that leads to the vi chord, the relative minor, which is somewhat of a surprise. Here we could encourage the student to linger on this minor harmony rather briefly, and to also bring it out through the use of dynamics. Immediately afterward, the original tempo is resumed. In the last measure, the right hand melody plays an appoggiatura that creates a dissonance with the left hand note. Again, we may want the student to linger on that note, to stretch it slightly, since it is both a final cadence and an unusual harmonic event.

To hear the segment of this Minuet performed as described, click below

182k, WAV sound file

All of the piano recordings in this article were done on a Kurzweil PC-88 keyboard

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